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The Obvious Choice

July 07, 2004

John Edwards is the best public speaker in national politics. Better than Bill Clinton. Better than the late Ronald Reagan. Lately, Edwards has been declaring his admiration for John Kerry with enough passion and eloquence to persuade listeners that they must have been imagining his recent battle against Kerry for this year's Democratic presidential nomination.

Kerry's choice of Edwards for No. 2 on his ticket is more obvious than it is inspired, reflecting Kerry's caution and, some might say, his lack of vision. But an obvious choice is generally obvious for a reason. Edwards brings more than crude geographical balance. He brings a Southern gift of gab to a Democratic ticket led by a man whose rhetorical gifts are limited by some puzzling combination of New England reticence, muddy thinking and always trying to have it both ways.

Edwards could win a talking contest against his GOP rival with one tongue tied behind his back. Vice President Dick Cheney gives speeches that are so barren of any effort to charm or persuade that the delivery alone seems to reflect contempt for democracy.

So Edwards can talk. But what does he have to say? Republicans are eager to tar him simultaneously as a committed left-winger and ambitious slickster who stands for nothing. A lack of deeply held beliefs can be useful in a political campaign, even for a sitting vice president, whose job traditionally is to support the president's policies and not to reason why. (In the current administration, of course, it works the other way.) Yet a vice president must always be prepared to serve as president. So a lack of core beliefs could be a significant problem.

The more frightening possibility, though, is that Edwards does have core beliefs, and that they are reflected in his demagogic us-versus-them arias to juries during his career as a plaintiff's trial lawyer, and in his opposition to free trade, among other issues. The campaign will be a process of smoking Edwards out on some of this.

Edwards is indeed extraordinarily ambitious -- perhaps even by the standards of the U.S. Senate, where he is only in his first term. But ambition -- even nearly insane ambition -- is not a disqualification for high office, or none of this year's presidential candidates would qualify. A tougher issue about Edwards' mad dash to greatness is whether he has garnered enough experience for the world's biggest job. A short answer to that is: No, but no one has. The job is unique.

The right question to ask about experience is not, "How much?" It's, "What kind?" Republicans will be right to note that neither Kerry nor Edwards has ever run anything bigger than a small law firm or a Senate office staff. In recent elections, voters have shown a clear and probably wise preference for governors over members of Congress.

Republicans can brag that their ticket not only has a former governor and current president on the top but has as No. 2 the former chief executive of a company (Halliburton) that could actually teach the government a thing or two about creative accounting.

One more thing. Edwards is handsome. The consensus on Kerry is that he is Lincoln-esque. The traditional grinning-candidates-at-the-podium shot from the Democratic convention will be a thing of beauty, compared with the Republican version, featuring a lumpish Cheney and President Bush trying hard to suppress his patented smirk. That shouldn't matter. But you know it does.

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