Top tier pundit Stuart Rothenberg ponders whether
or not John Edwards is running too far to the left to make him appealing
to mainstream Democrats and mainstream Americans in today's Roll Call.
I'll admit I'm scratching my head more often at Edwards'
seemingly insatiable desire to run to the left -- far to the left -- of
everyone in the Democratic race with the possible exception of Rep. Dennis
Increasingly, political observers are whispering that Edwards seems to be
running much as former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) Did in 2004, wooing
organized labor and recycling a class warfare message...While almost
everyone has nice things to say about the former Missouri lawmaker
personally, and Gephardt has his share of loyalists, he finished a
disappointing fourth in Iowa last time, something Edwards presumably hopes
I'm not entirely clear who these observant whisperers are, but it is
useful to analyze the differences between what sunk Gephardt and Dean
(whose third place 2004 campaign Rothenberg criticizes later in his
piece). I would argue that for both candidates, it wasn't their
progressivism, but rather their lack of it that helped doom their
candidacies, though I also wouldn't discount the poor quality of both Dean and Gephardt's advertising and serious problems in their field operations.
Gephardt was especially hampered by his aggressive advocacy of the Iraq War - especially his Rose Garden news conference with Bush to endorse the war before even Tom Daschle and other elements of the Democratic leadership had signed off on it. Even if he had run a better campaign, his enthusiastic endorsement of the war would have remained a serious obstacle (Kerry, who had always expressed ambiguity about the war despite his support for the war powers resolution, was by this point openly critical of the war).
Dean, on the other hand, had impeccable lefty credentials when it came to the war, but he was sunk when Kerry and Gephardt supporters teamed up to let Iowa voters know that his record was less than progressive on other issues like guns, Medicare and Social Security. Here's a short excerpt from my forthcoming book (excuse the self-promotion) Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party that discusses the real reasons for Dean's collapse.
Supporters of John Kerry and Dick Gephardt set up a 527 political committee at the end of 2003 to knock Dean out of the impressive lead they had established. The 527 polling found that when primary voters found out about Dean’s moderate to conservative record as governor of Vermont – especially his support for Nafta, his support for Newt Gingrich’s Medicare cuts during the mid-1990’s budget battles, and his opposition to most increased gun control measures – his support dropped 12 percent, moving him from a five point advantage against all his opponents combined to a 14 point disadvantage. The 527 (as well as the Kerry and Gephardt campaigns) did their best to get that information out to the progressive primary voters through hard hitting television ads in Iowa like "Facts";
"These two men have been given top grades by the National Rifle Association. One is George Bush. The other might surprise you. It's Howard Dean. That's right. In Vermont , Dean was endorsed eight times by the National Rifle Association, and Dean got an "A" rating from the NRA because he joined them in opposing common-sense gun safety laws. So if you thought Howard Dean had a progressive record, check the facts, and please think again."
Gephardt himself ran a hard-hitting ad pointing out that Dean had supported Newt Gingrich's Medicare cuts during the 1990's budget battles; another 527 ad questioned whether he could fight terror and compete with Bush on foreign policy.
With this real story of the 2004 Democratic primaries in mind, I have to question Rothenberg's idea that Edwards's progressivism is in fact a vulnerability.