February 1, 2008
So John Edwards has dropped out of the race for the presidency. By normal political standards, his campaign fell short.
But Mr. Edwards, far more than is usual in modern politics, ran a campaign based on ideas. And even as his personal quest for the White House faltered, his ideas triumphed: both candidates left standing are, to a large extent, running on the platform Mr. Edwards built.
To understand the extent of the Edwards effect, you have to think about what might have been.
At the beginning of 2007, it seemed likely that the Democratic nominee would run a cautious campaign, without strong, distinctive policy ideas. That, after all, is what John Kerry did in 2004.
If 2008 is different, it will be largely thanks to Mr. Edwards. He made a habit of introducing bold policy proposals — and they were met with such enthusiasm among Democrats that his rivals were more or less forced to follow suit.
It’s hard, in particular, to overstate the importance of the Edwards health care plan, introduced in February.
Before the Edwards plan was unveiled, advocates of universal health care had difficulty getting traction, in part because they were divided over how to get there. Some advocated a single-payer system — a k a Medicare for all — but this was dismissed as politically infeasible. Some advocated reform based on private insurers, but single-payer advocates, aware of the vast inefficiency of the private insurance system, recoiled at the prospect.
With no consensus about how to pursue health reform, and vivid memories of the failure of 1993-1994, Democratic politicians avoided the subject, treating universal care as a vague dream for the distant future.
But the Edwards plan squared the circle, giving people the choice of staying with private insurers, while also giving everyone the option of buying into government-offered, Medicare-type plans — a form of public-private competition that Mr. Edwards made clear might lead to a single-payer system over time. And he also broke the taboo against calling for tax increases to pay for reform.
Suddenly, universal health care became a possible dream for the next administration. In the months that followed, the rival campaigns moved to assure the party’s base that it was a dream they shared, by emulating the Edwards plan. And there’s little question that if the next president really does achieve major health reform, it will transform the political landscape.
Similar if less dramatic examples of leadership followed on other key issues. For example, Mr. Edwards led the way last March by proposing a serious plan for responding to climate change, and at this point both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are offering far stronger measures to limit emissions of greenhouse gases than anyone would have expected to see on the table not long ago.
Unfortunately for Mr. Edwards, the willingness of his rivals to emulate his policy proposals made it hard for him to differentiate himself as a candidate; meanwhile, those rivals had far larger financial resources and received vastly more media attention. Even The Times’s own public editor chided the paper for giving Mr. Edwards so little coverage.
And so Mr. Edwards won the arguments but not the political war.
Where will Edwards supporters go now? The truth is that nobody knows.
Yes, Mr. Obama is also running as a “change” candidate. But he isn’t offering the same kind of change: Mr. Edwards ran an unabashedly populist campaign, while Mr. Obama portrays himself as a candidate who can transcend partisanship — and given the economic elitism of the modern Republican Party, populism is unavoidably partisan.
It’s true that Mr. Obama has tried to work some populist themes into his campaign, but he apparently isn’t all that convincing: the working-class voters Mr. Edwards attracted have tended to favor Mrs. Clinton over Mr. Obama.
Furthermore, to the extent that this remains a campaign of ideas, it remains true that on the key issue of health care, the Clinton plan is more or less identical to the Edwards plan. The Obama plan, which doesn’t actually achieve universal coverage, is considerably weaker.
One thing is clear, however: whichever candidate does get the nomination, his or her chance of victory will rest largely on the ideas Mr. Edwards brought to the campaign.
Personal appeal won’t do the job: history shows that Republicans are very good at demonizing their opponents as individuals. Mrs. Clinton has already received the full treatment, while Mr. Obama hasn’t — yet. But if he gets the nod, watch how quickly conservative pundits who have praised him discover that he has deep character flaws.
If Democrats manage to get the focus on their substantive differences with the Republicans, however, polls on the issues suggest that they’ll have a big advantage. And they’ll have Mr. Edwards to thank.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company