CHAPEL HILL - Cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, lying to the public about it while running for president, and lying some more while supposedly coming clean on national TV. There are good reasons for the rush to denounce the suddenly toxic John Edwards. But lest we forget, he accomplished a few positive things during his decade on the political stage. On several counts, the nation owes him a debt of gratitude.
During Edwards' meteoric rise in politics, many people thought he could be another Bill Clinton, minus the sex scandals. Turns out he had that part covered, too.
They looked at Edwards and saw an optimistic, folksy, Southern Democrat talking about bread and butter economic issues. Edwards had rhetorical gifts honed by years of appealing to juries as a highly successful trial lawyer. He seemed disciplined enough to stay on message, whether meeting donors, giving stump speeches, or appearing before the TV cameras.
Yet in 2004, Edwards' unrelenting ambition and self-promotion ensured he would be off message as John Kerry's vice presidential nominee. Perhaps fueled by the "increasingly egocentric" narcissism he copped to last week while admitting his affair, Edwards kept the focus on himself. He refused to go on the attack against George W. Bush, reasoning that playing the traditional VP role of hatchet man would blow his image as a sunny, fresh face in politics. And maybe damage his prospects for another presidential run.
He couldn't even agree with Kerry on a slogan, refusing to adopt Kerry's "Help is on the way." Edwards preferred "Hope is on the way," which was more tuned to the themes of his own primary campaign. But Edwards was unable to entirely charm his way out of reality. He was woefully unprepared for his biggest turn in the spotlight, his sole debate with Dick Cheney, who wiped the floor with him. Edwards didn't carry his home state of North Carolina, even losing his home county and hometown of Robbins, N.C. The Democratic ticket lost every Southern state.
Ironically, by helping to bungle the 2004 elections for the Democrats, Edwards may have done us all a favor. As much continued damage as the Bush Administration has caused in the past four years, Bush's second term set the stage for Republican overreach. If the Kerry/Edwards team had been elected, the burden would have been on them to find a graceful exit from the Iraq war disaster. Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans would have happened on their watch, instead of providing the country with the wakeup call we needed to finally see Bush, Cheney & Co. had no clothes.
In 2006, Congress would almost certainly have remained in Republican hands, with Tom DeLay possibly emerging as Speaker. We'd be getting ready to coronate John McCain in '08, or worse. Maybe Jeb Bush would be heading the ticket, about to lead yet another restoration of the Bush family dynasty.
Edwards' tone-deaf political instincts again helped America out when he foolishly decided to push ahead with another presidential bid. Despite carrying on an affair with an unstable, new age nutcase with a shady past like Rielle Hunter in the 24/7 infotainment fishbowl of presidential politics, Edwards honestly thought the public would never find out. He even took her with him on his official announcement tour in the closing days of 2006, allowing her to be photographed sitting next to him on his campaign plane.
Hillary Clinton's former communications director Howard Wolfson was essentially right when he observed that by covering up his affair and staying in the 2008 race, Edwards cleared the field for Barack Obama. That's not a knock on Obama's historic candidacy, it's just the way things happened.
Wolfson's detractors cite a caucus night survey showing Obama was the second choice of 51% of Edwards caucusgoers, versus 32% for Clinton. But if Edwards had decided to quit before Iowa, where he had been practically living for the past few years, Clinton would never have considered writing the state off. It would have been harder for Obama to win the caucuses. As things turned out, Edwards finished second, edging out Clinton by a few tenths of a percentage point in a serious psychological blow to her campaign.
And by staying in the hunt until he limped to third place in South Carolina, the only primary state he won during 2004, Edwards split enough of the white vote with Clinton to give Obama a lopsided 55% victory. Only 2% of African-American voters in South Carolina backed John Edwards, according to exit polls, but he won the white vote, 40% to Clinton's 36%, with 24% for Obama.
Thanks to Edwards, the story that came out of South Carolina was that Obama had scored a bi-racial landslide, which gave him much needed momentum going into the Super Tuesday contests. It was a watershed event in Obama's path to the nomination.
Win or lose in November, Barack Obama's turn at bat is giving the Democratic party a huge boost for the future. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, younger voters' party affiliations basically tracked those of their parents and grandparents. But because of Obama's ascendancy (and the country souring on the GOP brand after eight rotten years of Bush), the generation gap is back.
In late June polls, voters under thirty-five backed Obama over McCain by an astonishing 27-point margin. And 58% now self-identify with the Democratic party versus 33% with the Republicans, as shown by a recent Pew Research Center report.
Finally, by falling short in his bids for the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency, Edwards ensured Democrats would not be seriously tarnished again by a national sex scandal. He would have truly been the second coming of Bill Clinton if Edwards had advanced further and then gotten caught with his pants down.
He even chose as good a time as any to go public with his ludicrously half-truthful televised mea culpa. If he had waited another two weeks, coverage of the Democratic National Convention would have been drowned out by the media fury. It would have been a replay of when Dick Morris was busted at the '96 convention for consorting and toe-sucking with call girls, only a lot noisier.
The Edwards affair story has been a big distraction from real news, like Wal-Mart coercing its employees to vote Republican in November, oil companies funding a massive propaganda campaign designed to open up our coasts to off-shore drilling, and a GAO report just released that reveals two-thirds of U.S. corporations paid no annual taxes from 1998-2005.
But because Edwards is out of office, not on the ballot, and now out of the running for a convention speech, VP slot or cabinet post, it will have little effect on Democrats' chances this fall.
So thank you, John Edwards. You can go now.
Erik Ose is a veteran of Democratic campaigns in North Carolina and blogs at The Latest Outrage.