CEDAR RAPIDS -- It's a beautiful Saturday evening, and more than a hundred Iowans who could be doing what other people do on beautiful Saturday evenings are gathered on the green at the Ushers Ferry Historic Village to hear a speech by John Edwards. He's scheduled to appear at the Linn County Democrats Family Barbecue, which has attracted not only local voters but a clutch of activists manning booths for other candidates and causes. As the crowd waits, partaking of hot dogs and hamburgers, the loudspeakers blare Bonnie Tyler singing, "I need a hero."
When he arrives, sporting faded Levi's and a light blue shirt, Edwards does a fair impression of one. In 2004, he offered himself as an optimistic centrist who could attract independent and Republican votes. But this year, he leans hard on themes tailored to appeal to the party faithful: raising the minimum wage, providing universal health insurance, strengthening labor unions, ending the "complete insanity" of President Bush's higher education policy, and, most important, pulling out of Iraq.
"We want to end this war in Iraq," he declares, standing in front of a large gazebo on the village green. "George Bush is not going to change until somebody makes him." He vows to withdraw at least 40,000 troops immediately and the rest within a year.
It's a spirited speech, and the crowd responds with cheers and whoops. They may have forgotten that five years ago, Edwards was sounding a different chord. "Iraq is a grave and growing threat," he wrote in The Washington Post. "America must act, and Congress must make clear to [Saddam] Hussein that he faces a united nation." Edwards has since renounced his vote in favor of the war resolution, saying he misjudged the threat because of faulty intelligence. But what he really misjudged was the politics of the moment.
Back in 2002, many Democrats in Congress were leery of emulating predecessors who opposed the 1991 Gulf War only to see the war go stunningly well. The few Democrats who crossed party lines to support the war, like Al Gore, earned a reputation for being tough, while those who voted against it were forever branded as soft on aggression. John Edwards, determined not to make one political mistake, made a worse one.
That leaves him looking for ways to demonstrate his courage, such as following in the footsteps of Bobby Kennedy in a tour of poverty-stricken areas. When asked questions by voters, he often begins his answer by saying, "I know it's not politically popular," or "I'm not going to tell you what you want to hear."