For reporters who covered John Edwards’ presidential bid in Iowa last winter or Democratic activists who saw him in cities and towns such as Sioux City and Onawa, his speech to the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night was the big-screen, Cinerama version of the performance they saw in the confines of Iowa coffee shops and community centers.
It was autobiographical, in its humble-roots-to-national-greatness portrayal of the life of this personal injury lawyer who, only six years ago, was a novice running in his first-ever bid for elective office.
It was also a militant pledge of American victory in Iraq: "We will win this war because of the strength and courage of our own people."
Edwards also issued a threat to Islamic terrorists: “We will have one clear, unmistakable message for al Qaida and the rest of these terrorists. You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you.”
He pledged to American soldiers in Iraq that they would “never be left behind….. And they deserve a president who understands that on the most personal level what they have gone through — what they have given and what they have given up for their country,” a reference for the fiftieth or hundredth time at this convention to Kerry having served in Vietnam.
He warned of "the possibility of terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon."
But what was telling about the Edwards speech was what's often telling in a candidate's speech: the missing words or phrases.
- No reference to Edwards’ or Kerry’s votes to authorize use of military force in Iraq, nor any reference to their votes last fall against an additional $87 billion in funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- No accusation or insinuation that President Bush had misled the American people about the rationale for toppling Saddam Hussein.
- No promise that U.S. troops in Iraq would be withdrawn.
- No reference to long-term detention of alleged al-Qaida operatives and soldiers at Guantanamo Naval Base and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that may result in some of them going free.
- No explanation of how — even if recruitment and retention fall off — a new Kerry administration would expand the size of the armed forces, as Kerry has promised to do.
- No reference to abortion rights, Roe vs. Wade, same-sex marriage, gun control laws or the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Some of these topics may have been left for Kerry himself to deal with in his speech on Thursday night.
Edwards, unlike most previous convention speakers this week, did offer some specific prescriptions, mostly on economic policy:
- A tax increase on the top two percent of Americans.
- “Tax breaks to American companies that keep jobs here in America.”
- Unspecified investments in “the jobs of the future, in the technologies and innovation to ensure that America stays ahead of the competition.”
- A tax credit of up to $1,000 to defray child-care costs for parents who work outside the home.
- A $4,000 tuition tax credit to help students go to college, an expansion of an idea that goes back to Clinton, Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell, namesake of the Pell grants for needy students, and the Eisenhower Era national defense student loans.
In the peroration, there was the note of economic victimization that Edwards used on the campaign trial last year, an approach that Democrats have often used, with mixed results.
“Tonight, as we celebrate in this hall, somewhere in America, a mother sits at the kitchen table. She can't sleep. She's worried because she can't pay her bills. She's working hard to pay the rent and feed her kids. She's doing everything right, but she still can't get ahead.”
If Kerry is elected, she will, Edwards pledged, get child care and college tax credits, as well as an increase in the minimum wage.
But this imaginary woman was not just a struggling mother, in Edwards’s portrayal, she was the wife of a man serving in Iraq.
“Her husband was called up in the Guard and he's been serving in Iraq for more than a year. She thought he'd be home last month, but now he's got to stay longer,” Edwards said, implying that Bush should not have deployed Guardsmen on long tours of duty in Iraq.
Edwards did not explain who should have gone to Iraq instead of this imaginary Guard member. He implied this soldier had been in Iraq too long, but how and when he’ll be brought home in a Kerry administration was left unclear, apart from a passing promise that “we can get NATO to help secure Iraq.”
Despite Edwards' call for victory in Iraq earlier in his speech, there was in his ending a suggestion that the Iraq engagement was one that has gone badly wrong.
Perhaps if enough voters agree with Edwards on that point, that in itself will be enough for Kerry and Edwards to win on Nov. 2, no matter what alternative they propose.