With only eight weeks to go until the Iowa Democratic caucuses, presidential contender Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is offering himself as the anger management candidate. “Everybody’s angry with George Bush. We should be,” he told audiences in three days of Iowa campaigning. But then he added, “We all know in our hearts that anger will not change America. ... If all we are in 2004 is a party of anger, we won’t win.”
HOWARD DEAN’S candidacy has tapped rank-and-file Democrats’ resentment at Bush and at congressional Democrats who supported him on the issues of tax cuts, the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq.
The Edwards strategy banks on the possibility that there are enough Iowa Democrats rattled by Dean’s white-hot rhetoric who are looking for a polemical — but palatable — alternative.
Even though Edwards stands at only 5 percent in the most recent Des Moines Register poll of Iowa Democrats, just about where he stood back in July, a strong third-place finish here behind Dean and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt would get him positive news media attention.
DARTS AT DEAN During his speech to the Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson fund-raising dinner in Des Moines over the weekend, Edwards aimed a few darts at Dean.
“I will never, ever put down this great Democratic Party that we are all so proud of,” he said, an allusion to Dean’s clarion call to activists to “take this party back” from congressional Democrats — including Edwards — whom Dean accuses of being timid and too accommodating with Bush.
Edwards also takes a jab at Dean on another score. In a debate two weeks ago, Edwards accused Dean of condescending to Southerners for his remark about wooing whites in Dixie who display the Confederate battle flag on their pickup trucks.
Edwards continues to probe that vein by invoking his saga as a working class kid — “the son of a mill worker,” as he says in every speech — who climbed his way up to become a phenomenally successful tort lawyer.
He is a contrast with Dean, who grew up in well-heeled circumstances as the son of a stockbroker and went to an elite Rhode Island prep school and Yale.
“When you’ve fought and worked your way up, you don’t look down on anybody,” Edwards told his Iowa audiences.
Edwards is also marketing himself as a genuine Southerner who can win some Southern states. History suggests the Democrats cannot win the White House without carrying at least a few Southern states.
Cracking a self-deprecating joke during a campaign stop in the small town of Onawa, Iowa, Monday Edwards said, “I do want to point out that I’m the only person here who doesn’t have an accent.”
At the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, he reminded the audience that “I have won races in places where we’re not supposed to win elections.”
Even though he used the plural “races,” Edwards has run for political office only once before in his life — when he won his Senate seat in 1998.
VOTING RECORD For all the richness of his Southern accent and persona, Edwards has a voting record that puts him at odds with the kind of conservative Southerners who abandoned the Democrat Party in droves in the past 30 years.
For example, Edwards has voted against the $87 billion Bush sought to sustain the Iraq operation and against a ban on the procedure known as partial birth abortion.
His voting record puts Edwards to the left of Southern Democrats such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana who have managed to survive in an increasingly conservative Dixie.
Edwards also strikes a different note than Southern Democrats such as Breaux by advocating a wealth-transferring populism.
He’d impose higher taxes on upper-income investors and provide tax breaks to lower-income people to save for retirement and to buy a home.
While having a voting record that might make it difficult for him to carry the South in the general election if he were the nominee, Edwards also has problems with some votes that are not pro-labor or antiwar enough for those activists who vote in the Democratic primaries. For example, he voted for the free trade accord with China in 2000, which organized labor sees as undermining American jobs and wages.
STAND ON IRAQ He supported last October’s resolution that gave Bush legal authority to attack Iraq and in April he declared, “We’ve proved that we have firepower. Now we must show that we have staying power.”
But last month, Edwards voted against the funds to continue the operation.
In an interview with MSNBC.com, Edwards explained that vote by saying, “I would support money for reconstruction, I would support money for the troops, but I would not support money for a failed policy, which is what we’re having right now. The president has not internationalized the effort, he has not given us a layout of what he intends to do over what period of time and I thought it was important for us to say, ‘No, what you’re doing is not working.’”
He added, “I think we have a responsibility there, that responsibility continues, but the president believes we have the responsibility apparently to do this alone. … Unless he’s willing to give up some control, we have no chance of internationalizing this effort, which I think is the only way it will be successful.”
Edwards got help on his Iowa campaign tour this week from his wife, Elizabeth, herself a lawyer. She is almost as comfortable wooing a crowd and as steeped in policy details as he is.
DEFENDING HER HUSBAND After Edwards left a gathering Monday at Duncan’s Café in Council Bluffs, Elizabeth Edwards took over the pitch and deftly handled questions on an array of topics from prescription drugs to Turkey’s strategic stake in Iraq to America’s standing in the eyes of foreigners.
On Iraq, she began her answer by saying: “I honestly believe that” — then corrected herself “John believes that …”
She mocked Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, for his appearance beamed from Baghdad on Sunday morning TV talk shows.
“He sat in this chair, which had some big medallion thing around it. It was almost as if it were a cartoon of the imperialistic viceroy,” she said.
Defending Edwards’ vote for the Patriot Act, she gave a brisk explanation of the law’s provisions. Referring to Edwards, she said, “I wish he would” point out to those who criticize the Patriot Act that it included reasonable provisions that allow the FBI to keep pace with technological advances. Prior to the Patriot Act, she explained, investigators could not get search warrants to get data from a voice answering system that was run by a telephone company — as opposed to a store-bought phone answering machine.
She said Edwards favors repeal of the parts of the law that he thought went too far in infringing on personal freedom.
Adding a note of Washington insider detail, Elizabeth Edwards proudly told the crowd that when Attorney General John Ashcroft has testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on which Edwards serves, “he would not even look at John” because Edwards’ questions are too tough for him. “The minute John is in office, that is over,” she vowed.