What Happened to Edwards?

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John Edwards, my personal choice to be the Democratic Presidential nominee, has dropped out of the race. Of course, this was not unexpected. I had hoped he would wait until after super Tuesday so that he would have some delegate power to negotiate with at the convention. Pundits spent little time wondering what went wrong with the Edwards’ campaign before moving on to the more important question- Who will Edwards endorse?

Was it the $400 hair cut and the sprawling mansion that did Edwards in? Was there too much John Kerry baggage? Was he, as Chris Matthews put it, just too “glamorous”? Or, as Christopher Beam in Slate claims, too phony?

There are a lot of explanations for Edwards’ decision to drop out. His opponents’ celebrity, his obsessive focus on Iowa, the limited appeal of his one-note populism. But you can’t discount his unbearable phoniness. Even when I agreed with the message, I bristled at the brazen insincerity -or appearance thereof-of the messenger.

None of these accounts focus on what, it seems to me, is the main reason Edwards campaign never gained traction once the primary season began. His populist message scared the major media outlets who are owned and controlled by big corporations. As a result, they refused to cover him. Shortly after placing second in Iowa, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that John Edwards received a puny 7 percent of national media coverage. Clinton and Obama got between four and five times more even though their poll numbers at that time were only slightly higher than Edwards’. The New York Times’ own public editor, Clark Hoyt, conceded that his paper had shortchanged Edwards.

In Iowa … John Edwards is close behind Clinton in the most recent Des Moines Register poll, yet The Times has given him comparatively scant coverage. Clinton and Obama have been profiled twice each on the front page since Labor Day, but Edwards not at all this year. Throughout the paper, The Times has published 47 articles about Clinton since Labor Day, only 18 about Edwards.

As the Des Moines Register put it in an editorial, they couldn’t endorse Edwards because

His harsh anti-corporate rhetoric would make it difficult to work with the business community to forge change.” What scares the editorial board of the Register is that Edwards doesn’t plan to “work with the business community” at all, but to empower government to re-regulate big business.

Democrats have always been seduced by Identity politics and we now have two candidates that the media can frame as a race vs gender choice. The NY NOW editorial charging Edward Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama as a betrayal shows that the divisive “Identity” narrative is likely to work.

Most polls had shown Edwards as the Democrat most likely to defeat every Republican candidate. His populist campaign, bashing corporations and free-trade deals, was perfectly timed for an economy everyone admits is in a recession. His platform reflected the party’s progressive base better than Clinton’s or Obama’s: total withdrawal from Iraq in nine months, a European style health care plan, full financial aid for students admitted to public colleges and universities and a strong message about the plight of the poor and the middle-class.

So, now that the candidate with the progressive platform is out of the race, who of the two, Clinton or Obama, does it make most sense for a progressive to support? Because there is really little that separates them when it comes to their policy goals, it is important to reframe what counts as a critical “issue” in this campaign.

George Lakoff has a very interesting article about framing the issue of leadership. He compares the New York Times editorial endorsing Hillary Clinton with the editorial in the same paper by Caroline Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama. The Times editorial talks about the ability to understand and carry out policy as the most important quality in a President. Caroline Kennedy frames the qualities of leadership differently. She wants a President,

who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it; who holds himself, and those around him, to the highest ethical standards; who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream, and those around the world who still believe in the American ideal; and who can lift our spirits, and make us believe again that our country needs every one of us to get involved.

According to Lakoff:

The difference is striking. To the editors of the New York Times, the quality of leadership seems not to be an “issue.” The ability to unite the country is not an “issue.” What Obama calls the empathy deficit — attunement to the experience and needs of real people — is not an “issue.” Honesty is not an “issue.” Trust is not an “issue.” Moral judgment is not an “issue.” Values are not “issues.” Adherence to democratic ideals — rather than political positioning, triangulation, and incrementalism — are not “issues.” Inspiration, a call to a higher purpose, and a transcendence of interest-based politics are not “issues.”

Lakoff goes on to describe how Democrats ought to reframe what counts as an “issue.” The article is well worth reading for those of us still debating who we will support as the Democratic nominee.

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