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Why Edwards' policies caught on, but he didn't

Some years are like that



John Edwards ended his '08 presidential campaign where it began, in New Orleans. The math of yesterday's Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses dictated that he do so: There were just not enough states where he could expect to win even 15 percent of the vote (the minimum required to earn delegates), let alone come in first.

No, Edwards was in the way, as he said, between two historic candidates vying to be the first woman president or the first African-American president.

Edwards' campaign focused on poverty and shoring up the middle class against a system of global capitalism that, if unmediated by national policies, rewards its financiers while many are left wanting. Along the way, Edwards retraced Bobby Kennedy's steps in Appalachia. He walked picket lines in New York and Los Angeles. He denounced "free trade."

And Edwards introduced audiences to people like James Lowe, who was 50 years old before he was able to speak—because he couldn't afford the operation to fix a cleft palate.

Universal health insurance became the centerpiece of Edwards' platform, both as a way to help working folks, and as the quintessential example of how profit-driven corporations won't operate in the public interest unless laws require them to do so. Edwards knew the territory well: As a trial lawyer, he got rich by suing health-care and insurance companies on behalf of wronged patients. As a candidate, he argued that these companies—and their lobbyists—must not be allowed to write the laws on health care, any more than oil companies should write the energy laws, or the banking industry, banking regulations.

Policy wonks, especially progressive ones, gave Edwards high marks for spelling out a set of policies on health care, energy, trade and the economy that his rivals, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, later adopted. But most voters didn't hear much about Edwards, beyond the fact that his campaign had paid $400 for his haircut. Clinton was the early front-runner, favored by most Democratic women. Obama was her chief rival, the choice of most African-American and younger voters. They were the media darlings. Edwards, vice-presidential candidate on the losing '04 ticket, was yesterday's news. He tried to attack Clinton's willingness to work with—and accept money from—the special interests. But he never could get past Obama as the "change" candidate and the principal alternative to a Clinton restoration.

And so it came down to Iowa. The caucus process there allows every candidate to be heard, and Edwards was heard, over the course of a full year. And when the votes were counted in Iowa, Edwards ran second, ahead of Clinton, but behind the victorious Obama. It helped Obama immensely that his political base was in neighboring Illinois. It also helped that he'd opposed the invasion of Iraq when he was a state senator representing a liberal district on the South Side of Chicago.

As a U.S. senator, Edwards, a red-state Democrat, voted for the war in '02. He apologized later for getting Iraq wrong, but with Obama in the race, Edwards could never be the anti-war candidate.

In the end, politics is a lot about timing and luck. Obama's young organizers dominated in Iowa, boosting him to a second-place finish in New Hampshire five days later and then to a smashing victory in South Carolina, Edwards' native state, where more than half the Democratic voters were African American.

Edwards had warned of dire consequences for the country if it didn't change course quickly and dramatically in 2009. But what could be more dramatic than the election of a dynamic figure like Obama—unless it would be the election of a former president's wife?

Maybe, if that campaign aide had thought, when looking at the fateful bill, "You know, $400 for a haircut? Maybe I should send this to Elizabeth." Maybe. But most likely, it just wasn't John Edwards' year.

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