What if the problem the Democrats face cannot be explained by all the careful calculations of the careful political calculators? What if their 2004 loss was not primarily about losing a few Catholics here and a few married women there? What if the Democrats' challenge is about passion, not positioning?
John Edwards is wagering a lot, maybe his whole political future, on that list of what-ifs. The 2004 vice presidential nominee, the guy with the dad in the mill who gave the most remembered stump speech of the Democratic primary campaign, will rejoin the debate with a new speech in New Hampshire on the first weekend in February. From the sounds of an interview at his Georgetown house earlier this week, Edwards intends to pick up where he left off in that "two Americas" discourse of his.
"It needs to be clear to the country what our core beliefs are, and the last thing we need is strategic maneuvering," Edwards says. "What people want to see is leadership and strength and conviction. This is about what's inside us. It's not about how we get to the right place."
Wearing blue jeans and a blue button-down shirt, Edwards moves from passion to laughter to hard political calculation. If some might see in Edwards's comments about core beliefs an implicit critique of the Democrats' 2004 campaign, he tries to exorcise that thought by speaking only warmly and respectfully of John Kerry, the man who put him on the ticket. These guys may turn out to be rivals in 2008. For now Edwards wants to stay on the sunny side.
It's true, of course, that rejecting political calculation can itself be a form of political calculation. Conviction politics was a big winner for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Even President Bush's critics concede -- well, they don't concede anything these days, but they might grudgingly admit -- that Bush's core political edge is just that, the appearance of strength and of standing for something.
But conviction politics has not been in vogue in progressive circles. This era's two great center-left politicians, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, have been resolute Third Wayers, tacking carefully between left and right. The Third Way was a tacit admission of conservatism's momentum.
Edwards is well positioned to offer Third Way 3.0. He's a young southerner, a working-class kid made good whose dad was a deacon in his church. He speaks admiringly of Clinton's skills, particularly the former president's ability to make others feel that he identifies with their struggles.
But Edwards's instincts tell him that tepid politics are exactly what the Democrats don't need now. "I don't think this is about moderate, conservative, liberal," he says. "Americans are looking for strength, an idealistic strength. They want to know what we'd do on Day One if we ran the country."
Moral issues matter, Edwards says, but Democrats won't look moral by getting into a bidding war over how often they can invoke the name of God. Instead, Democrats should speak with conviction about an issue that has always animated them: the alleviation of poverty. "I think it is a moral issue; it's something we should be willing to fight about and stand up for," he says.
Those who counsel caution, he says, would let calculation push Democrats away from their historical commitments. "They think it's associated with some political label," he says, carefully avoiding the L-word himself. "They think that a lot of people who live in poverty don't vote and don't participate and so they don't think there's a lot of political capital there."
Edwards, who is planning to set up a center to study ways to alleviate poverty, is enough of a politician to insist that he wants to advocate not only on behalf of the destitute but also for those just finding their footing on mobility's ladder. But he offers the unexpected claim that the very voters who have strayed from the Democrats would respond forcefully to the moral imperative of aiding the poor.
"The people who love their guns and love their faith, they care about this," Edwards says. "There is a deep abiding feeling of moral responsibility people have about those who are doing everything right and are still having a hard time."
Okay, okay, it's bound to be said that Edwards is making a shrewd political wager that Democrats have tired of capitulation. The test will be whether he sticks with it. It's a fair bet that someone who talks about a real moral issue for the next four years will at least be easier to listen to than politicians who place all their money on yesterday's focus groups.