John Edwards brings to the Kerry cause two principal assets: an optimism contrasting with Kerry's lugubrious pessimism and - during the Democratic presidential primaries - a refusal to go negative on his opponents.
In the retrospectives on Ronald Reagan, we saw repeated testimony about the importance of optimism to political achievement - optimism President Bush possesses in abundance. If Edwards maintains his opposition to going negative, this time regarding President Bush and his administration, his selection may herald that political rarity - a campaign based not so much on the personalities of the contenders as on the ideas they respectively embrace.
About the Kerry-Edwards ticket, there are other aspects of greater or lesser import.
This is the first ticket in memory with both members having the same first name.
It is the first ticket since 1960 consisting of two sitting senators. (The 1972 Democratic ticket of Senators George McGovern and Thomas Eagleton does not count; Eagleton later withdrew from the ticket.) John F. Kennedy, who headed the 1960 Democratic ticket (with Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate), was only the second presidential candidate to move directly to the White House from the Senate; the other was Warren G. Harding. (The initials "JFK" are shared by Kennedy and Kerry and both are from Massachusetts.)
Assuming Edwards' nomination, the Democrats have offered a Southerner as their presidential or vice-presidential nominee in every election since 1960 except three (1968, 1972, and 1984). In all three of those elections, they lost.
Given the generally low esteem for the national Democrats in the South today, the addition of Edwards may not help Kerry much. In the primaries, Edwards carried only two states nationwide - the Carolinas. Yet Edwards may force the Bush-Cheney ticket to campaign more diligently in the South than otherwise, and this despite the assumption that had Edwards not sought the presidency, he probably could not have won re-election to the Senate from North Carolina.
As a trial lawyer, Edwards is member in good standing of a broadly disdained special-interest lobby that for years has ranked as one of the most generous contributors to Democratic candidates and causes.
Edwards may have grown up as the son of working-class parents but, from his trial-lawyer predations, he is well moneyed now. In the primaries, he campaigned hard on the issue of closing the gap between the "two Americas," one rich and one poor. Pretty-boy populist that he may be, it is difficult to see how the addition of the rich Edwards to a ticket headed by the rich Kerry will broaden the Democrats' appeal to those who perform real work to make their way.
Yet none of that gets to perhaps the fundamental meaning of Kerry's selection of Edwards: confirmation of the ticket's thoroughgoing left-ism.
The Democrats will try - they've been building the case for some time - to make the November election principally about George Bush. Why? Partly (a) because many Democrats refuse to believe he is president legitimately, that he and the Republicans stole the outcome in the Florida contretemps. But more broadly (b) because of Bush's (and Dick Cheney's) abiding conservatism and moderation compared to Kerry's (and now Edwards') deep-running liberalism.
Kerry's first choice for a running mate was Sen. John McCain - a social conservative and a hawk on Iraq. By fashioning a bipartisan "unity" ticket with the Republican McCain, Kerry could have blurred the ideological distinctions between himself and Bush. To his credit, McCain would have none of it. So Kerry has picked Edwards - with a Senate lifetime Americans for Democratic Action rating of 81 (to Kerry's 92). Those two ratings compute to a combined lifetime rating of 86, hardly different from leftist paradigm Teddy Kennedy's 88.
There's little disputing it now: The presidential contest is building toward an ideological Armageddon - perhaps the final battle between extreme liberalism and moderate conservatism.
Kerry himself first made his public name on the ramparts with Jane Fonda. His campaign team boasts numerous recruits from the Kennedy camp. The Wall Street Journal noted Tuesday that speeches in prior years written by Kerry's adviser and speechwriter, Robert Shrum, "defined the left wing of the Democratic Party." Kennedy and Al Gore are top Kerry campaign surrogates. In a July 6 political ad in The New York Times, Gore said, "Thanks to his contempt for any person, institution, or nation who disagrees with him, George Bush has actually exposed Americans to a greater, rather than lesser, danger of attack by terrorists. This administration has shamed America and deeply damaged the cause of freedom and human rights everywhere."
And now the choice of John Edwards as Kerry's running-mate - an individual Kerry labeled during the primaries as insufficiently experienced to be president: "In the Senate four years, and that is the full extent of [his] public life: no international experience, no military experience. You can imagine what the advertising is going to be next year."
And not only the advertising. Imagine, indeed. Soon, now, imagination will give way to reality. When that happens, keep noticing where the negativism lies - and whether the discussion is about personalities or ideas.