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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Edwards Departs

Back in March, John Edwards held a press conference with his wife, Elizabeth, to discuss the reappearance of her cancer. At the time, there was widespread speculation about what Edwards would actually say. Hours before the event, a source told The Politico that the senator would suspend his campaign, then Matt Drudge put up the sirens, and for a moment, it looked like Edwards was done.
Today, Sen. John Edwards is dropping out of the race. After disappointing losses in the early caucuses and primaries, that really doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But it is worth stopping to note that between March and now, Edwards has made a real, tangible impression on this campaign for president.
The mere fact of Edwards’ withdrawal makes the assumption that everyone has made now inevitable—the next Democratic nominee for president will either be the first woman or the first African-American. By quitting the race now, and doing so gracefully, he does his part to ease the country into this historic moment.
Edwards will make his announcement today from New Orleans—the same place he kicked off his campaign for president. Through the course of this election, Edwards, more than anyone, has made poverty an important theme in the race. Following his lead, Obama and Clinton both announced elaborate plans to fight hunger and disease and raise personal income levels. It is now a central part of the agenda for the next Democratic president.
In fact, Edwards is responsible for driving much of the ideas debate in this primary. Before his rivals, he released sweeping, detailed plans to achieve universal health care and to fight global warming. They had little choice but to be just as bold and meticulous in their own policy prescriptions. His health care plan was particularly good example of fundamentally solid public policy. It was innovative and smart, describing specific roles for individuals, corporations, and the government. When Clinton released her plan in the fall, it shared much of the same architecture.
Five years ago, Edwards gave a speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. It was called, “In Defense of Optimism,” and its message became the theme of his first campaign for president. It was immediately hailed as a success, and many pointed to that message of hope as a reason for his surprising second-place-finish in Iowa in 2004. But that wasn’t the theme that Edwards chose to campaign around in this election. He ran as a fighter, a crusader, someone who could take on the big corporations and entrenched interests. But it’s hard to be an angry, hopeful populist. This combative message just did not get voters (liberal or otherwise) to show up for him at the polls. It’s hard to call the Edwards failure a rejection of populism outright, but it does lend some doubt to the idea that this kind of rhetoric can be a successful platform for a president.
Now, the question is what he does next. Most reports indicate that Edwards will not endorse another candidate at his rally this afternoon. We know for a fact that he met privately with Hillary Clinton after the last Democratic debate. On Saturday, Robert Novak reported that the Obama campaign had been talking up the idea of Edwards as Attorney General. There is also some question as to whether the Edwards camp harbors some residual resentment of the decision by his former strategist David Axelrod to support Obama. Personally, I think the opinion that matters most to Edwards is that of his wife, and any endorsement decision matters heavily on how she weighs in.
Edwards’ effect on the candidate competition from this point on is still up in the air. But his impact on the policies for which the ultimate nominee will fight is certain, and hard to overestimate.

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