No More Mr. Nice Guy

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

During his first run for the presidency four years ago, John Edwards posed a question to his audiences: "Are you in fact looking for somebody who can say the nastiest thing about the other candidate, or are you looking for someone who can lift this country up?"

This time around, Edwards is answering the question himself. Mr. Nice Guy of '04 has remade himself as Nasty Boy of '08 -- a tightly wound ball of belligerence prowling for a skirmish.

"What America needs right now is America needs a fighter," says the candidate, who was a trial lawyer and a Democratic senator from North Carolina. "Let me tell you why we need a fighter. There's a wall around Washington, and we need to take that wall down. The American people are on the outside, and on the other side -- on the inside -- are the powerful, the well-connected and the very wealthy."

Sounds like a bit of class warfare -- coming from a man with a 28,000-square-foot house, $30 million in assets and a $400 haircut.

"This is not class warfare," he continues. "This is the truth."

And the truth is that Edwards likes to fight. He used a version of the word 23 times -- about once a minute -- in a stump speech he gave to the Democratic National Committee recently: "Who's going to stand up to those people and fight? . . . This is going to be the fight of our lives. . . . You can win the fight."

The fighter theme climaxes in a paroxysm of pugnacity: "I fought. I did not walk away from the fight. I fought. I stood my ground. I took them on. And I beat them, and I beat them, and I beat them again. I won. I won . . ."

But Edwards is not winning at this particular moment. Speaking before the DNC crowd, he found that his "stand with me" line did not cause audience members to stand. Neither did they rally behind his "one America" and "fighter" themes. And so he kept going, turning a tight 10-minute stump speech into a rambling 25-minute address that ended only when a DNC official stood impatiently at the candidate's elbow.

Still, we know that Edwards means what he says. We know this because he says everything loudly, shouting from beginning to end as he denounces the "rigged" system in Washington. For further evidence of sincerity, he swaps his trademark smile for a pained squint when he speaks about the "disappointment" of the parents who have no money for their children's college, and he shakes his fist when he demands removal of the "wall."

There are many things Edwards does not say, however. While arguing that "it is not okay that No Child Left Behind has left us behind," he neglects to mention that he voted for that education legislation. When he thumps the lectern and speaks of the need to "end this war" in Iraq, he omits the fact that he voted to give President Bush the authority to start the war. And while it sounds good for him to say "I did not walk away from the fight" as a product-liability lawyer, he skips the part about walking away from the Senate in 2004, effectively ceding the seat to Republicans.

In lieu of that nuance, the Edwards stump speech is heavy on repetition -- the "wall" got 31 mentions in his DNC speech -- and anecdote. He told the story about Army Capt. Drew Sloan, then the tale of Orelia Tyler of New Orleans, then the yarn about cancer patient Sheila of Cleveland, and of course the part about James Lowe and his cleft palate.

For all his wordiness, Edwards is mostly silent when it comes to policy details. The stump speech offers few specifics about what he would do, even as he told his DNC audience that he would build "one America" -- eight times. "Will you join me in creating one America?" he asked.

Well, sure. But what are we going to do with all those people you've been fighting with?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company