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Post Partisan
Posted at 03:40 PM ET, 04/26/2012

John Edwards, Bill Clinton, and the concept of representation

Ryan Lizza comments: “I don't really understand the over-the-top contempt/hatred for John Edwards from same people who defended/have forgiven B. Clinton for same.”

I’d say there are two basic answers to this one, assuming we grant that the assertion is true.

The first is partisanship. Democrats in 1998-1999 almost certainly rallied around Bill Clinton in part because, whether they hated what he had done or not, the decision by House Republicans to turn the Clinton scandal into an impeachment made it a clearly partisan fight. In an age of partisan polarization, that kind of reactive public opinion is entirely expected. With no current party fight involved in the Edwards scandal trial, partisans are (cognitively and politically) free to approach it any way they like.

What interests me about it however is that there’s also a representation aspect to this story. What we need here is the concept of “promises,” as explained by political scientist Richard Fenno. The idea is that campaigning, from a representation perspective, is all about making promises. However, only some of those – and not necessarily the most important ones – are what we normally think of as promises: explicit commitments on issues of public policy. Other promises are about how the politician will act in office, and even who that politician would be if she is elected. The easiest way to see this is in the examples of politicians who are “first” of their demographic group, whatever it is, to win an office. Often, the main promise those politicians make is to “be” that group, which generally involves emphasizing any cultural attributes that go with the group (so that a Polish-American member of Congress might eat kielbasa as publicly as possible).  Promises, too, can involve a particular style: a member might promise to hold lots of town hall meetings or make the very different promise of being an expert on the issues; a candidate might promise to be “one of us” or to be Our Celebrity in Congress.

These types of promises generally can’t be broken by voting the wrong way on a bill. That first Polish-American would be in far more trouble if he were caught on video praising some French or Japanese restaurant and sneering at the Polish one; the “one of us” politician could get in trouble for moving her family to Washington, or perhaps for being spotted at some Kennedy Center gala – while the astronaut elected to be Our Celebrity in Congress might be expected to be at such an event.

So, to Bill Clinton and John Edwards. I think it’s fair to say that no one supported Bill Clinton in 1992 or 1996 because he was a great family man. True, he did more or less explicitly promise to cut it out during his presidency, but Clinton’s campaign wasn’t even remotely based on it. What Clinton, more than anything else, promised Democrats was that his brand of moderation could win the popularity for them that they hadn’t had at the presidential level since, oh, Vietnam started going bad – and in that, he mostly delivered. Clinton was, to some extent, even inoculated against lying, at least for political advantage; plenty of Democrats in the 1990s before the Lewinsky story broke would have agreed that he was indeed Slick Willy, but he was their Slick Willy.

But I’d say that John Edwards made his family story a major part of who he was, especially in the 2008 campaign. Of course, Edwards did talk issues, as all candidates do. But the Edwards tragic family story was, at least to my eyes, a big part of what his campaign was eventually about. That is, the 2008 campaign was presented to Democratic voters more than anything as a function of the candidate’s loyalty to his dying wife. How does that make sense if Edwards was not, in fact, loyal?

The bottom line is that while plenty of Democrats were angry at Bill Clinton for risking his presidency in 1998, very few felt suckered, and virtually no one as far as I know thought that they had learned something about him that undermined their trust in other areas. That wasn’t true with John Edwards; that he had lied about that made it seem that there was nothing he would not lie about. That, in a nutshell, is representation.

By  |  03:40 PM ET, 04/26/2012

 
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