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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Great Expectations

There’s been an interesting kerfuffle over the last day in the Democratic presidential contest, after the New York Times The Caucus blog reported that John Edwards had in an interview twice refused “at this time” to answer a question about supporting Hillary Clinton if she wins the Democratic nomination.
The story got picked up in various places in the blogosphere. Kevin Drum called Edwards’ behavior “very mysterious.” Jason Zengerle at The Plank begs to differ: “As the Democratic candidate who’s been most unsparing in his criticism of Clinton, Edwards would look like a total hypocrite if, in the midst of offering his whithering Clinton critiques, he pledged his future support to her.”
I’m with Kevin on the basic issues here. “Will you support the Democratic nominee if you lose?” is an incredibly standard question for presidential candidates, sort of on the order of “Why do you want to be president?” It’s been asked of Republican candidates in debates this year, in terms of a hypothetical Giulani nomination (disguised as “a pro-choice nominee”). Probably no one has asked Democrats before because nobody thought there was any question about it, given the similarity of most of their policy views and their common hostiilty towards Republicans.
But Jason is correct that the vectors of Edwards’ criticism of HRC have been heading in a direction that would make his support for her as the nominee questionable. That’s what I was worried about back in August when I drew attention to the first Edwards speech that implicitly said a Clinton nomination would continue the corrupt Washington politics of the Bush administration. The Bush Lite/Corporate Stooge line of attack from Edwards has only gotten more intense since then.
In any event, in a press availability today, Edwards “clarified” his no-comment by saying: “I fully expect to support the Democratic nominee, and I fully expect to be the Democratic nominee.”
One wag (named franklyO) commenting on this news at TPMElectionCentral said: “For the logically minded, this could be interpreted as saying nothing more than that Edwards will support himself as Democratic nominee.”
For some of us old-timers, the Edwards formulation was evocative of the highly calculated mantra repeated endlessly by Ted Kennedy in 1980, before he decided to challenge Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination: “I expect President Carter to be renominated, and I intend to support him.”
Any way you look at it, Edwards has guaranteed he’s going to get asked this question again until he specifically says he’ll support the nominee no matter who it is, much as Obama has already done–and perhaps until he gets into the habit of saying that much as he dislikes HRC, she’s far preferable to anyone the opposition can nominate.

6 comments on “Great Expectations

  1. edkilgore on

    Thanks for the catch on Teddy’s middle initial. And you’re right, Jimmy’s religiosity was very off-putting to some Democrats. I remember reading a zillion years ago that there were some very non-born-again counties around the country where in 1976 Carter ran behind McGovern’s 1972 numbers, mainly because of his religion (which, of course, helped him a lot more in the South and in Southern-inflected areas of the Midwest).
    I dunno what’s in Edwards’ head, but I’ve suggested here on more than one occasion that he seems to be running a campaign aimed at the netroots and at more conventional Democrats who never much liked Bill Clinton. The almost slavish consistency of Edwards’ rhetoric of late with well-worn netroots themes is getting eery. There’s a dog whistle in every line. You’d have to guess this is Joe Trippi’s influence. Like most consultants who’ve blown an opportunity to win The Big One, he’s replaying the tapes and trying to get it right this time.
    Ed Kilgore

  2. ducdebrabant on

    Kennedy’s refusal to heal the rift hurt Carter in the general election, but at least he endorsed Carter. I tried and couldn’t think of a single instance when a Democrat left any doubt that he would endorse the nomineee. The only time I think it might have happened is when George Wallace was running, and Hillary is no George Corley Wallace. I know Edwards is going for slash and burn these days (and I worry about that, if Hillary is nominated), but is it really only a strategy? There must be something personal, because this is not the Edwards I remember — touchy, cantankerous, hyperbolic, divisive. He was never this hard on the Republicans when he ran with Kerry. If he’d attacked Cheney in these terms, we might have won.

  3. Badger on

    You’re welcome, Ed. By the way, I think Senator Kennedy’s middle initial is “M” for “Moore”.
    I didn’t vote in the general election in 1980 – I was away from home and didn’t get an absentee ballot – but I did support Carter in the primaries. I supported Anderson in the general but if the election were close, I’m pretty sure I’d have voted for Carter again.
    FWIW, I do remember his religion – not his denomination but the fact that he was a “born-again Christian” – was a particular bone of contention amongst not a few of my liberal friends and acquaintances.
    Getting back to the topic, I really don’t see any of the top tier or even the second tier candidates not supporting the nominee whoever it is. I don’t know enough about Gravel to speculate about him one way or another. I’m guessing Kucinich would support the party’s nominee, but he might also decide as a matter of principle that he couldn’t support a candidate who wasn’t sufficiently against the war which might leave Hillary out.

  4. Noah Dvorak on

    I think it’s possible to draw a parallel, however slight, to Howard Dean’s awkward exit from the 2004 contest. He always said he would support the eventual nominee, but there was a palpable feeling that the support would be reluctant if Kerry was nominated (untrue, as it turned out). Regardless, Dean maintained the clear pretense of independence:
    “‘The bottom line is that we must beat George W. Bush in November, whatever it takes,’ [Dean] said.
    But, he added, his organization [Democracy for America] will closely monitor the Democratic nominee and, if necessary, will be ‘letting our nominee know that we expect them to adhere to the standards that this organization has set for decency, honesty, integrity and standing up for ordinary American working people.'” (NYT, 2/18/04)
    Now Joe Trippi has another candidate who is at least troubled by supporting an eventual nominee with whom he feels he has fundamental differences.
    Unlike most Democratic politicians, especially the Clintons, Edwards entered politics relatively late in life and did not rely on the mainstream party apparatus to do so. And his biography is well-suited to his newfound adversarial populism; see Noam Scheiber’s article in The New Republic.
    I guess this mini-episode solidifies Edwards’s outsider identity. But there is a thin line between outsider and outcast, and Edwards has branded himself with a sense of anger and disenfranchisement that goes beyond party identification. This has not been a winning Iowa caucus message in recent memory. I wonder if the Edwards campaign has any internal polling to suggest this year is much different.

  5. edkilgore on

    Thanks. I had forgotten about it, but Jimmy’s pursuit of EFK across the stage was indeed sadly hilarious. One of the few good things about today’s tightly stage-managed conventions is that nobody gets on the stage, or gets to speak, unless all the unity gestures are agreed to in advance.
    On your broader point, there’s no doubt Jimmy had more detractors on the Left than HRC does today, though Carter’s poor overall political standing had something to do with it. But liberal defections to John Anderson probably cost Carter NY and MA in the general election.
    Thanks for the comment!
    Ed Kilgore

  6. Badger on

    I immediately thought of Senator Kennedy and the 1980 campaign too.
    Hopefully if the Democratic nomination does come down to a choice between Hillary and Edwards and Hillary does win (which is far from a foregone conclusion) we don’t get a repeat of the 1980 convention where Kennedy practically ran away every time Carter tried to get him for the traditional “Democratic unity” photo op.
    By the way, Carter was hated by the more leftist faction of the party just as much – maybe even more – as Hillary is now.


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