John Edwards brings a lot to the Democratic ticket—charm, new electoral opportunities in the South and rural Midwest, a working-class background, outsider credentials—but the most significant thing he brings to John Kerry's campaign is a message. In picking Edwards, Kerry tacitly acknowledged one of the most persistent criticisms of his campaign—that it lacked a coherent vision.
Kerry basically admitted this on Tuesday, when he publicly announced his decision. "Throughout this campaign," he told a crowd in Pittsburgh, "John [Edwards] talked about the great divide in America—the 'two Americas' that exist between those who are doing very well and those who are struggling to make ends meet in our country. That concern is at the center of this campaign. It is what it is all about." But, if that is what the Kerry campaign was all about before John Edwards hopped aboard, it was doing a good job of keeping it secret.
During the primaries, Edwards used the "two Americas" formulation as a powerful metaphor to contrast Bush administration policies benefiting the few with his own prescriptions to aid the middle class. In one speech, he borrowed a phrase from Andrew Jackson to describe the theme of his campaign: "Equal opportunity for all; special privileges for none." He coupled this message with his own rags-to-riches biography and, most importantly, with a set of ideas on taxes, health care, college tuition, and other issues that spoke to the economic anxieties of struggling families. None of Edwards's proposals were hugely ambitious or radical, but they addressed kitchen-table concerns and struck a chord with audiences. After Edwards's events, voters spoke glowingly of his message, not just his personality. Meanwhile, at Kerry's events, voters talked tactically—about how, because of his war record, they thought Kerry could beat Bush.
This disparity probably made it inevitable that Kerry would eventually steer toward a more Edwardsian view of the world. And, in fact, in the weeks before Kerry chose Edwards, several much-ignored policy speeches were perhaps a harbinger of the Edwards pick. Events in Iraq and coverage of the running-mate selection process overshadowed an important shift in Kerry's domestic message toward the same themes that attracted so many Democrats to Edwards earlier this year.
The shift occurred in response to the improving economy. Until recently, Kerry's main criticism of the Bush administration was a simple, and initially potent, attack on the president for the number of jobs lost during his term. But, as spring turned into summer, it became clear there was a problem with this line of argument: The economic recovery was generating hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Absent a larger critique, Kerry's main economic message was held hostage to the monthly data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The campaign needed something more. "You had the jobs picture improving, and that created an imperative to have a broader story line," says a senior Kerry adviser.
The solution was the "Middle-Class Squeeze." Unveiled in late June, it's what the Kerry campaign calls its new economic message. The campaign argues that stagnant incomes for those who do have jobs, combined with the rising cost of health care, education, gasoline, and child care, are forcing Americans to assume ever greater debt loads and causing a record number of middle-class families to declare bankruptcy. Unlike the specific number of jobs lost, the trends Kerry is talking about now aren't fleeting, but structural. Politically, sounding these themes also makes sense for two reasons. One is that Bush, apparently convinced that the election will be decided on national security, doesn't have much of a second-term domestic agenda. Secondly, Kerry's aides think the balance between these policies and electoral politics is well calibrated. "We're speaking to the broad middle class that we need to get to, electorally, but also doing good policy that helps the people that need help," says a senior aide.
Many of the themes that Kerry outlined last month echo Edwards's primary campaign. It's no coincidence that Robert Gordon, John Edwards's chief policy adviser during the primaries, joined the Kerry campaign in the spring. Along with Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton's domestic policy adviser, Gordon was one of the architects of Edwards's policy portfolio. Gordon and several other Kerry advisers were deeply influenced by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi's book, The Two-Income Trap, a powerful study of the financial strains burdening middle-class families with two working parents. "[Their] book had a real galvanizing effect," says an adviser. "A lot of us read it. It did a good job crystallizing a lot of our economic prescriptions."
As Edwards did in the primaries, Kerry now talks about the explosion of household bankruptcies over the last few years (they have jumped 33 percent, from 1.2 million in 2000 to 1.6 million in 2003). Kerry has also added to his economic platform the problem of crushing debt from credit cards, an issue also championed by Edwards and a problem that will only worsen as interest rates rise. Soon Kerry will unveil proposals to deal with another Edwardsian concern, predatory lending. Some of Kerry's earlier proposals, such as his plans to reduce college-tuition costs and to contain health care costs, have also been recast into this new rubric of easing the middle-class squeeze.
So far, Kerry has had trouble sticking to this new message. On the stump, it has sometimes sounded like a laundry list of proposals rather than what, in Edwards's hands, was a powerful critique of, and a sensible response to, Bush's policies. But, the more Kerry emphasized the middle-class economic anxieties from the Edwards primary campaign, the more it made sense simply to bring Edwards on board. The promise of the Edwards pick is that Kerry is embracing not just many of the North Carolina senator's policies, but his framework for selling them, too. Kerry's use of the "two Americas" formulation in his speech Tuesday was evidence of this, as was the Kerry campaign's concerted effort the following day to define the ticket as one of "hope and optimism," another hallmark of John Edwards's primary campaign.
The one major policy difference between Kerry and Edwards during the primaries was over free trade. Edwards attacked Kerry's vote for NAFTA, but, notably, he never called for its repeal and his criticism always smacked more of opportunism than of conviction. He didn't raise the issue strenuously until after Richard Gephardt was gone from the race, when he saw an opening with organized labor and working-class voters on Kerry's left. These attacks on free trade were an awkward fit with the rest of Edwards's middle-class, New Democrat agenda, and they will clearly not be a major feature of the Kerry-Edwards rhetoric.
The major downside to adopting not just Edwards's message but Edwards himself is that it has reopened a question that Kerry had already successfully answered for voters—one of experience. Among Kerry's greatest advantages was the fact that poll after poll shows that large majorities of Americans believe he is ready to be president. Historically, that is an enormous obstacle for a challenger to overcome, one that dogged Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000, right up until Election Day. For a Democrat in post-September 11 America, it is an especially important accomplishment that voters have no reservations about Kerry's experience. Meanwhile, Republicans have quickly criticized Edwards, claiming his career as a lawyer and his one term in the Senate do not qualify him to take over the presidency in an emergency. Then again, all evidence is that, in the end, voters make a decision about the top of the ticket, not the bottom. If reopening the experience question was the cost Kerry had to pay to sharpen his campaign's lackluster domestic message—and to get his party's best spokesman to sell it—then it will have been well worth it.
This article ran in the July 19, 2004 issue of the magazine.