While it’s long been clear that Edwards’ political career is over, there has been relatively little written about what the man meant to the Democratic party he sought to lead.
And, though assessing what Edwards meant to the party is complicated by his personal self-destruction in recent years, there is a strong case to be made that he was a major influence on both the direction Democrats have taken and the message they have embraced over the last decade.
“People responded to his message and it moved other Democrats and the party in the right direction,” said Joe Trippi who served as an adviser to Edwards in the 2008 campaign. “The tragedy, beyond the personal and the indictment, is that he lost his voice and any power to sound the alarm that the divide between the two Americas has grown to epic proportions.”
Tracing Edwards’ political career from its start in 1998 when he defeated Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) to its conclusion in 2008 when he was failed in his second attempt at the Democratic nomination is instructive.
In Edwards’ first race — we remember it well, it was one of the first campaigns the Fix covered in depth — he cast himself as a conservative southern Democrat.
That positioning — in the ideological middle — was widely regarded as the way to win for Democrats as evidenced by the successes of Bill Clinton at the presidential level.
(Some take issue with the characterization of Edwards as a conservative in the late 1990s; “He was prescient in discussing the national debt...and he favored the death penalty in certain situations,” said his pollster Harrison Hickman. “His voting record was as or more liberal than any Southern Senator in history.”)
As the Bush presidency wore on, however, Edwards adopted more and more of a populist approach to politics — casting himself as a voice for the voiceless.
It was during his 2004 presidential bid that Edwards developed his now-famous “Two Americas” rhetoric — built on the idea that the country was growing more and more riven between the haves and the havenots.
“When John Edwards used his ‘two Americas’ formulation for the first time, his phrase became the de facto frame for the party’s message until it was replaced with change and hope,” said Anita Dunn, a Democratic media consultant and former White House communications director in the Obama Administration.
By 2008, Edwards — like many Democrats — had grown increasingly disenchanted (and angry) with not only the Bush presidency but many within his own party for their alleged failures to lead on the issues of the day.
His sunny populism of 2004 turned into a fiery call to arms in 2008 — a sort of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more” message that found surprisingly deep roots among Iowa caucus-goers. It was not, ultimately, enough for him to overcome the better known and better financed candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, however.
While Edwards drew heavy criticism from his rivals — both Democrats and Republicans — for his seeming ideological transformation over the decade in which he strode the national stage, his movement in many ways mirrored that of his party.
The end of the Clinton presidency brought an end to the idea of co-opting the political middle as the lone successful strategy for Democrats. The first Bush term created a sense of amazement among Democrats about the direction he was taking the country. That amazement turned to outrage in the 2008 campaign.
And Edwards, admittedly more of a political chameleon than most, was there every step of the way — sometimes leading, sometimes following but never irrelevant to the direction in which the Democratic party was headed.
The sordid end of Edwards’ public life makes the imprint he left on the party easy to forget. But, it was real — and meaningful.