John Edwards will need a virtuoso performance at tonight's debate to achieve the dramatic come-from-behind win he needs to stay alive. He's facing an opponent in Barack Obama who proved with his amazing Iowa victory that he is an extraordinary organizer, possibly a strategic genius, and above all an inspiring presence who captured Iowans' hunger for change. And he's got momentum. And let's not forget Hillary Clinton, who can count on lots of money, a ruthless campaign operation, and real affection for her and Bill Clinton in the state.
But Edwards can definitely win - with a slight retooling of his message.
- Give us a little hope
The first thing Edwards has to do is combine his anti-corporate message with an inspiring vision of a hopeful future. Anti-corporate attacks, though they strike a chord with many Democratic voters, can only go so far.
You also need to give voters a great hope that you can do better, especially now that most Democrats and most Americans are feeling excited about the possibility of real change that the Iowa result represented. Obama has been very effective at wrapping himself in hope. Reviving Edwards's successful 2004 speech line, "Hope is on the way," would be a great start.
- Talk about Bringing People Together, but the Right People
Obama's message about "bringing people together" to achieve real change clearly resonated with voters. But too often in the past, Obama has brought together the wrong people: corporate executives and right-wing Republicans, resulting in his support for items like expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement to Peru, nuclear power, liquid coal, George Bush's 2005 energy bill (full of billions in subsidies to oil, coal, and nuclear companies). Edwards needs to talk about bringing people together too, but say that he's bringing ordinary Americans together to achieve the transformative change this country needs. After all, Edwards is the guy who somehow managed to win the endorsement of both the anti-coal Friends of the Earth and the coal-supporting United Mine Workers (in addition to the Steelworkers, Transport Workers, Carpenters and SEIU locals), a really stunning Blue-Green alliance.
- It's about specifics, not about power
Especially of late, Edwards has resorted to broad oblique criticisms of his opponents, saying for instance, that, "You can't nice these people to death," a reference to Obama's repeated willingness to make massive accommodations to corporate executives. These attacks are just to oblique and lots of voters won't connect the dots. They really remind me of Howard Dean's ineffective and overly raw paeans to power in the last days of the 2004 Iowa caucus fight. Rather than saying that Hillary Clinton is too close to lobbyists and Barack Obama is too accommodating of the corporate executives responsible for America's problems, Edwards has to show it. Obama's record is full of dangerous capitulations to corporate executives (which I wrote about here and here). And Hillary Clinton directly lobbied to let the giant International Paper logging company poison New Hamsphire residents by burning tires (an issue that needs to get more attention in the Granite State). Also, when you criticize on specifics rather than generalities, it usually seems like a sincere comparison rather than a gratuitous attack. It seems like Edwards's campaign is starting to talk more specifics, but Edwards himself will have to do it himself to make the message really resonate.
An Edwards win - or a very strong second place showing - is possible, but it's going to take something big and new to make it happen.- Glenn Hurowitz is the president of Democratic Courage, a political action committee dedicated to electing a "progressive, courageous, and winning" president. He is also the author of the "brilliant" and "compelling" new book, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party.