Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The following piece is a special contribution to Innocents Abroad from Steven M. Teles. Teles is the author of the highly acclaimed Whose Welfare? Although we don't share his attraction to John Edwards, we consider Teles the thoughtful opposition.

Reflections on the Democratic Ticket

If I had a choice, I would not have picked a VP candidate who has the protectionist sympathies that John Edwards has (although god knows they come from the right place emotionally, namely a real, unfaked sympathy for working people). Al Gore was a free trader, and I think at the margins this kept Clinton moving in the right direction in the 90s. I'm worried that, although Kerry is basically a free trader, Edwards will nudge him in the wrong direction. The fact that he was a plaintiff's attorney bothers me, although it could be worse--much worse--since he had a personal injury practice, not handling mass-tort cases. But again, at the margins, if Kerry had any desire to buck the party's most important constituency (along with teachers unions), he wouldn't get a lot of help from Edwards.

That said (!), I'm thrilled. I supported Edwards in the primary, and I genuinely dislike Kerry, so having him on the ticket makes it that much easier to swallow the inevitable (voting Democratic). Everyone who saw him speak on the campaign trail (as I did in New Hampshire, at an absolutely mobbed appearance), had a crush on him. By the time I saw him, the "two nations" thing was becoming sort of old, but it's still precisely the right message, much better than Kerry's lame attacks on Bush's job losses, which is a very ephemeral rhetorical hook. The basic problem, Edwards suggested, was deeper--that the folks running the current administration (for the most part, with exceptions) just have a very different set of interests than in helping the poor or the working class. While Fahrenheit 911 was made by a genuine cretin (in my view), the more people who see the speech where George Bush says to a group of campaign contributors, "some people call you the haves, and the have mores. I call you my base..." the better. It makes Edwards' point precisely--poor and working people are not the base of George W. Bush's party, and they are not the people who most of his administration think of when they put together their policies. This has consequences all the way through the administration's policies, regardless of whether this month's economic numbers are up or down. If I were Kerry, I'd go back to the front porch campaign, stay in Beacon Hill, and just have Edwards hammer away at the Republicans non-stop for 5 months. Unfortunately, protocol dictates that he has to campaign.

Strategically, given that the "hide Kerry in a salt mine" strategy will probably be a non-starter, I would actually be quite focused with what I did with Edwards. I would NOT send him all over the country as a surrogate, to places where Kerry can't reach. Instead, I'd pick a very small number of places and have Edwards become a real, long-term force there. Places where Edwards is likely to go over well, and that are either competitive or close enough to being competitive that it forces the Bush people to run more of a 50 state campaign than they'd like to. Here's my list:

a) Florida panhandle, and pretty much everywhere there's a military base in Florida. Northern Florida is actually part of the South, and for that reason, having Edwards talk about what a great patriot and veteran Kerry is will go over better than having the man do it in person. In addition, the Dems have a good "Bush administration is bad for veterans" issue, even if it is somewhat overblown. Kerry should do fine in Southern and Central Florida, but even picking up a few percentage points in the North would give the campaign a big advantage. 27 electoral votes.

b) Louisiana. An 8 point spread in 2000, I'd have Edwards campaign very hard to raise black turnout here, and do everything he can to come up with a convincing "Kerry is NOT going to take away your guns" riff in the more rural parts of the state. Edwards is much more likely to be able to do this than Kerry, even though Kerry is an (accurate!) hunter. Same story for Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia (although the latter has a much lower black vote than the other two), which were even closer. Together that's 35 electoral votes. Did I mention how important I think neutralizing the gun issue is here?

c) Iowa and Wisconsin. States where Edwards campaigned hard, and where he showed serious support among independents, and where the Democrats won by the smallest of margins in 2000. 17 electoral votes.

That's 79 electoral votes, which is much more than we should think that any vice-presidential candidate could have an effect on. But these are, for the most part, not large states, where something just above retail campaigning is actually possible (with the exception of Florida, and even there, in the places where it matters, like Pensacola, you could spend enough time to have a really major impact on the local media market). And in that context, Edwards is fantastic, and may be able to reach voters who would not otherwise listen to Kerry. Critically, I would dramatically limit Edwards' campaigning everywhere else, except for a few drop-ins on states that are geographically close to the ones above, and similar in their basic political alignment (such as North Carolina, where I don't think Edwards will push the campaign over the top, but where it's worth having him there to try to push up turnout in races down the ticket).

The most important thing, in my mind, is that the Kerry campaign be seen as not allowing Bush to count on a huge chunk of states as already having been locked up before the shooting starts. The more that they attack vigorously in states that are weakly in the red territory, the more it makes the political calculations of the Republicans more difficult. Edwards certainly helps with this in some states (although Bill Richardson, who I preferred for political reasons, would have helped out with a whole other set of states, such as NV, AZ, and CO).

A final thought on Edwards. I think Kerry made a wise decision for one additional reason--the future. Edwards really is a fantastic campaigner, and a smart guy and a quick learner, but green. VP is probably the right place for him, especially if Kerry can figure out a real, serious job to give him (as Clinton did with the reinventing government stuff). If he loses, he'll be ready in 2008, if he wins, he's got eight years of experience in 2012. It is hard to see that there is ANYONE with the package of assets that Edwards has, and therefore it makes sense to put him up on the first tier for the future of the party.

Now if only Edwards could get over his allergy to free trade and tort reform....

-- Steven M. Teles


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