On the Campaign Trail
In Edwards, an Echo of Clinton
Tactics and Demeanor Are Similar, but Differences May Be Key
By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2004; Page A04
ATLANTA -- He definitely rings a bell somehow, that fresh-faced politician up there on the stage. Perhaps it is the accent, which gets a bit thicker late in the day or when a crowd comes alive. Maybe it is the time spent lingering when the speech is over, hugs for everyone who wants them.
The bell-ringer is Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), and the chimes of memory he is striking are of another southern Democrat who pursued the presidency with some of the same populist themes and ebullient energy: Bill Clinton.
A generation of ambitious Democrats, including Clinton, once emulated the phrases and manner of John F. Kennedy, with a few politicians even mimicking the distinctive way he jutted his hand into his suit coat. Ronald Reagan remains the beau ideal for a generation of ambitious Republicans.
But Edwards is the first national politician to run as a Clinton echo. Some of this may be coincidence, as both men are telegenic natives of the New South. But many of the similarities seem by design, from certain frequent phrases in Edwards's stump speech, to the people he has hired as senior political and policy advisers, to his frequent invocation of the fact that only Democrats who have run well in the South (and, not incidentally, happened to be from there) have managed to win the presidency in recent decades.
"If you close your eyes, you can definitely hear echoes of '92," the year Clinton sprang to national notice, said Bruce Reed, who was a senior aide to Clinton from 1992 through 2001, and as president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council has advised Edwards and rival Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) this year.
At first blush, the similarities in rhetoric and campaign-trail mood are striking. Clinton's oft-repeated mantra was about representing people "who work hard and play by the rules," and he said his philosophy was based on "opportunity, responsibility, community." At a recent event in Savannah, Ga., Edwards praised the two single mothers who introduced him as "examples of what we're supposed to do in America -- work hard, be responsible, support our families." He says his philosophy is based on "hard work, responsibility, fairness."
Clinton and Edwards share some of the easy familiarity with crowds, a skill the more reserved Kerry lacks. "She's not bothering me a bit," Edwards reassured a mother, as she fussed in obvious embarrassment with a squalling child during a recent speech. Even the Clinton and Edwards methods for dealing with protesters at rallies -- "Let's give them some applause," Edwards said cheerfully when chanting AIDS activists broke into his speech in New York the other day -- are nearly identical.
At second blush, however, some of the contrasts between Clinton and Edwards may be more consequential.
Substantively, Edwards has been seeking to set himself apart from front-runner Kerry by stressing his opposition to the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, which he said has destroyed jobs. Clinton regularly cited his successful passage of NAFTA -- and his repeated willingness to transcend the historical Democratic suspicion of free trade -- as an important pillar of his legacy. For Democrats generally, the retreat from unabashed promotion of trade and globalization as a net positive for America -- a retreat that Kerry has also joined -- marks perhaps the party's sharpest ideological turn from the Clinton era.
Even stylistically, the differences between Edwards and Clinton run deeper than superficial likenesses. On the campaign trail, Edwards has proved himself vastly more disciplined and controlled -- but also far less conversant in the details of public policy.
Clinton's speeches were often larded with the finer points of legislation he was debating with Republicans, or free-ranging meditations on the social consequences of phenomena such as the Internet or genetic engineering. Sometimes he would hold forth on movies he liked, such as "High Noon" or "American Beauty." Reporters who covered him learned the hard way not to drift off during late-night speeches inasmuch as these were often the source of newsworthy unscripted comments. When a frustrated aide once asked Clinton why he could not simply repeat the prepared comments he delivered in the afternoon, Clinton replied that this made him bored.
Repetition does not bother Edwards. He sticks to nearly identical language at most appearances and interviews. And, although his campaign produced a detailed issues book months ago, much of it drafted by "New Democrat" former Clinton advisers, Edwards almost never mentions it any more or quotes its specifics.
This lack of details leaves some listeners cold. Sarah Gerard, a freshman at Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y., said she came to a recent Edwards rally full of anticipation for a man she regarded as the most exciting candidate in this year's field. She left disappointed by a speech that was "way too broad."
"My reaction to what he was saying is 'Yeah, duh.' Don't just tell me what I want to hear," she said.
Paul Begala, a political analyst who lived with Clinton for a year as a traveling aide in 1992, said "the profound similarities" between Clinton and Edwards is their "innate ability" to relate to people emotionally, "without having to consult a focus group about what to say." The profound difference, he said, is that by the time Clinton sought the presidency, "he had spent his whole life in public policy."
Jennifer Palmieri, who worked in the Clinton White House and is Edwards's campaign press secretary, said Clinton had a spontaneous fascination with the tactics and strategies of politics that Edwards does not. Before speaking to a group in, say, Wisconsin, Clinton would know everything about recent voting patterns, and the issues the group probably wanted to hear about, she said. Clinton would "lock on to someone in the third row and not let go until he had won that person over."
Edwards, who talks occasionally to Clinton, rarely mentions the former president by name. Although Clinton is remembered appreciatively by Democrats for his economic record and his ability to win, the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal and other controversies of his eight years in office do not make him an automatic applause line the way Reagan is for Republicans.
Rick Hahn, 50, a computer security expert here, said he admires Clinton -- but is not looking for a replica, and believes Clinton's pre-Sept. 11, 2001, era seems long ago. "I can see how people note the similarities," he said at an Edwards rally Saturday. "But it's a different war now. The times are so different."
But his friend, artist Barbara Robinson, 48, said she is backing Edwards in part because of the Clinton comparison. "He seems very charismatic," she said. "He's interested in people, and he's got that common touch that Clinton had."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
At rallies, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) seems at ease with crowds and handles hecklers by calling for applause.
(Charlie Riedel -- AP)