Is Edwards Following the Dean and Gephardt Models Too Closely?

by Stuart Rothenberg May 17, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

It wasn’t very long ago that I wrote in this space that, in the argument as to whether the Democratic contest for president is a two-person or a three-person race, I was a member of the “John Edwards is in the Democratic top tier” camp.

I argued his strength in Iowa, clear message and personal appeal make the former North Carolina Senator a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, though not quite the equal of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) And Barack Obama (Ill.) In the Democratic sweepstakes.

I see no reason to change that view, but I’ll admit I’m scratching my head more often at Edwards’ seemingly insatiable desire to run to the left — far to the left — of everyone in the Democratic race with the possible exception of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio).

Increasingly, political observers are whispering that Edwards seems to be running much as former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) Did in 2004, wooing organized labor and recycling a class warfare message. Of course, I’m not suggesting that Edwards’ message is entirely new — in the previous cycle, his “two Americas” theme addressed issues of class and race as well — only that, of the credible candidates, Edwards has filled the “Gephardt slot” in the current race.

While almost everyone has nice things to say about the former Missouri lawmaker personally, and Gephardt has his share of loyalists, he finished a disappointing fourth in Iowa last time, something Edwards presumably hopes to avoid.

Edwards’ campaign strategy and message may well be due to the presence and influence of his campaign manager, former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.). Bonior, a national co-chairman of Gephardt’s 2004 presidential campaign, always has been close to organized labor, and he was a leader in the fight against free-trade measures during his years in Congress.

When the Edwards campaign announced in April that it had signed consultant Joe Trippi as a “key member of the media team and senior adviser,” it raised plenty of eyebrows. Trippi doesn’t merely like to think outside the box; he prefers to take the box, rip it into little pieces, pour kerosene on it and set it ablaze.

These days, Edwards’ campaign seems unable to pass up an opportunity to throw a political bomb, particularly about Iraq. Trippi’s past presidential client, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), was about as confrontational as anyone in the 2004 race, which inevitably leads to the question of Trippi’s influence on the former Senator’s message.

Since Edwards switched his position on Iraq long ago, far before Trippi joined the campaign, I’m not suggesting that Edwards is getting his voice on Iraq from Trippi. But the consultant’s hiring at the very least suggests Edwards is seeking to fill the Dean role — the angry, militant conscience of the party who eschews compromise — in this campaign.

Just a couple of days ago, I received an Edwards campaign news release criticizing a proposal to give the president half of the funds he requested and requiring a July vote on the rest of the funds.

“This is not a compromise; it is a concession,” Edwards asserted in the release. “Enough is enough. We don’t need to wait and see how the surge is going to do; we know the surge has failed. It is time to end this war. … Congress should not back down to the president’s veto. They should pass the same bill they sent him last month, a plan to support our troops, end the war, and bring them home.”

That statement echoed one released a week earlier that demanded Congress not negotiate with President Bush on the end of the war. “Congress should answer the president’s veto by sending him another bill with a timetable for withdrawal. And if he vetoes that one, Congress should send him another and another until we end this war and bring our troops home,” said the former Senator, who was imitating either Jimmy Stewart or Cindy Sheehan.

Edwards received some good ink from Democracy for America, the self-described grass-roots political organization founded by Dean and dedicated to recruiting, training, promoting and funding progressive candidates for office.

A recent DFA e-mail, signed by Executive Director Tom Hughes, informed readers that Edwards was the first candidate “to state his position on Iraq in a video directly to you.” The e-mail, while emphasizing that the kind words about Edwards weren’t an endorsement, also noted Edwards was the first candidate to respond to the group’s challenge asking candidates for their plan to stop global warming.

More troubling for mainstream Democrats may be Edwards’ association with the innocuous-sounding, a shrill, pro-impeachment group that appears to be at the far end of the ideological spectrum. recently sent out an e-mail including a message from Edwards praising the group and urging its supporters to sign his petition demanding a “binding exit plan for the War in Iraq.”

For the moment, Edwards’ message of confrontation, confrontation, confrontation probably looks pretty good to grass-roots Democrats who are sick of the war, distrustful of the president and once again longing for some of the anger and feistiness that now- Democratic National Committee Chairman Dean demonstrated during the summer of 2003. And unlike Dean (and even Gephardt), Edwards has personal qualities that make him more appealing to voters.

The question is whether, in the long haul, mainstream Democrats — and I’m certainly including liberal Democrats in that category — will find Edwards’ recent rhetoric and style too Dean-like for their liking. As we all saw four years ago, being angry and confrontational, and having the support of blue-collar union voters, isn’t always enough.