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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Trippi’s Might Have Beens

Former John Edwards strategist Joe Trippi has a fascinating article up on the Campaigns & Elections site arguing that in retrospect, Edwards should have stayed in the race instead of dropping out before Super Tuesday. Indeed, Trippi spends a good part of the piece kicking himself for not urging that course of action when the candidate was trying to decide whether to continue a low-budget, trunctuated campaign or pack it in:

My mistake was not seeing more clearly then what is so obvious to me now: He could have kept his agenda in the forefront by staying in the race and forcing Obama and Clinton to focus on those issues because he, John Edwards, would hold the key to the convention deadlock. And maybe, just maybe, a brokered convention would have stunned the political world and led to an Edwards nomination.

With all due respect for the brilliant Mr. Trippi, he should stop kicking himself, because even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s really less than “obvious” that Edwards could have become a kingmaker or king by continuing his campaign.
Sure, it’s easy to say that with Obama and Clinton perhaps heading towards a photo finish, Edwards might have amassed and held onto enough delegates to hold the balance of power. But what would he have done with it? Forced Barack Obama to adopt an individual mandate in his health plan? Demanded that Hillary Clinton attack her own husband’s administration, or suddenly apologize for her Iraq War Resolution vote?
The truth is that Edwards’ agenda wasn’t sufficiently different from those of his rivals to give him any particular leverage over what either of them would do as a candidate or as a nominee. Even without the lure of Edwards delegates, Clinton and Obama have competed to offer Edwards-style economic populist rhetoric, for the simple reason that the primary landscape rewarded it. And in any event, both have lost significant control over their messages thanks to media-driven controversies over Jeremiah Wright, “bitter-gate,” and Bosnian sniper fire.
Trippi doesn’t specifically say that Edwards might have risen phoenix-like to do a lot better in the late primaries, but he does mention Pennslyvania and North Carolina as states that probably would have been “strong for Edwards.” Perhaps, though it’s more likely that he would have been chewed up in the vast money competition between Clinton and Obama through Pennsylvania (particularly given his acceptance of public dollars with strict spending limits), while suffering the same demographic problems that made him an increasingly weak third-place candidate between Iowa and South Carolina. By now, the odds are high that he would be facing the same humiliating defeat in his home state of NC that faced him in his native state of SC just before he dropped out.
So let’s say for the sake of argument that even if Edwards struggled to the finish line without a big bloc of delegates, an incredibly tight Clinton-Obama contest centered on superdelegates might have given him the opportunity to essentially name the nominee. I take Trippi at his word that Edwards isn’t interested in securing anything for himself (e.g., another Veep nomination or a particular Cabinet post). So what would he “get” for an endorsement, other than the personal gratification of getting to make it? In a general election campaign against John McCain, either Clinton or Obama will talk about, say, poverty, exactly as much as is necessary. It’s not as though McCain will be seriously competing for the votes of those who care about entrenched poverty. Likewise, the gulf between either candidate and McCain on Iraq, on Iran, on health care, on economic policy, on tax policy, will be very deep without any particular encouragement from John Edwards. Furthermore, the race as it exists today between Obama and Clinton may wind up being close enough that an endorsement from Edwards would be crucial, without an extended campaign in which he would probably have been forced to say things about his rivals that would not endear him to either, or to most Democrats.
Even if I’m wrong about all that, I suspect Trippi’s nearly alone in his suggestion that a deadlocked convention and dispirited party just might have turned its lonely eyes to Edwards as the nominee. Even under Trippi’s highly optimistic scenario, Edwards would have lost a vast number of primaries and caucuses to the two candidates whose aspirations would need to be put aside to pave the way for the North Carolinian. The prospect that has so many Democrats terrified right now–the disgruntlement of African-Americans or of women at the rejection of their champions–would be doubled, not eliminated, by the nomination, against the wishes of Democratic voters, of yet another white man, however progressive.
So maybe Trippi gave Edwards the right advice before Super Tuesday. By suspending his campaign, he’s been able to stay out of the candidate crossfire, get some rest, spend time with his family, and get ready to play a role in the general election and, we all hope, the next administration. He can still have an impact on the nomination if he chooses (so far he has not, even though you’d think the NC primary would have been a good opportunity to make a splash), can still make a well-received convention speech, and can bask in the rehabilitation that usually accrues to losing candidates who leave the campaign trail honorably, and on their own terms. Joe Trippi shouldn’t wish he’d helped deny John Edwards, or himself, that relatively soft landing.

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