The trial-lawyer populist

Posted: Jan 26, 2004 12:00 AM

CONCORD, N.H. -- "I'll be honest with you about something," Sen. John Edwards tells a group of employees at a leather-goods manufacturing shop here, as if he is about to let slip a secret he rarely confides to anyone -- despite the presence of dozens of TV cameras. "I don't think I can change this country by myself."

Oh, really? You mean it might actually take the support of voters to change the country? Edwards, who has become a media darling and will carry his fight for the Democratic nomination to the South in coming weeks, regularly unlooses such crashing platitudes. Like this: "I believe we shouldn't look down on anyone." Or this: "This election is about the future of the country."

The wunderkind former trial lawyer with the gorgeously hair-sprayed bangs and soft, winning Southern accent combines the synthetic sincerity of Bill Clinton and the condescension of Al Gore. He is the most insulting of all the Democratic presidential candidates, both as a matter of presentation and of substance.

He believes that voters are too thick to realize the affectation behind his lavishly open and caring stump style. "Now, I'm just asking," he tells his listeners here. "Does it make any sense to you -- I'm just asking now, I don't know what you think about this -- does it make any sense to you for us to be spending Social Security money on tax cuts?" Of course, he wouldn't be asking if he didn't know exactly the answer that his stilted question -- one of his favorite stump tactics -- will elicit.

Howard Dean believes that voters are angry enough to revolt. John Kerry believes that voters are sophisticated enough to pick the most-experienced candidate. Edwards believes voters are helpless victims, beset by "special interests" that have stolen their democracy and evil corporations that are making their lives miserable through high drug prices and insurance premiums.

This is a populism with a distinct trial-lawyer cast. Anything that companies do to make a profit is basically a crime, and Edwards is going to go after them, just as he did as a trial lawyer in the medical malpractice cases that made his $12 million to $60 million fortune. Edwards makes no notable call for self-reliance or individual responsibility, since in his worldview people basically aren't up to it.

Edwards calls his rap "optimism," but it is deeply pessimistic in what it says about our individual capacities to fend for ourselves. It is dishonest besides. His tale of how corporate special interests dominate Washington is infantile. Corporate interests work partly to protect themselves from other interests, including trial lawyers.

Edwards leaves this out of his anti-special-interest speech, which is odd given that the litigation industry has been the nation's biggest special-interest giver since 1990, larding half a billion dollars on federal campaigns. One listener here asks Edwards where he gets his money. The candidate assures him that he voluntarily eschews lobbyist and PAC money, but "I do raise money from individuals." This is a laughably shifty response.

No other Democratic candidate gets a greater percentage of his campaign money in big $2,000 donations -- the legal limit -- than Edwards does. More than half of his campaign contributions come from law firms. As a populist like Edwards might put it, the candidate is "bought and paid for" by the trial lawyers.

Edwards harps on rising health-care costs, not mentioning how his friends and contributors have enriched themselves contributing to this problem. The rise of often bogus medical malpractice suits and huge jury awards has forced doctors out of business and driven up their insurance rates, making for rising health-care costs generally. So, Edwards is campaigning on a crisis that his comrades have exacerbated. Pretty nifty,


He has made it work for him so far, with his battery of leading questions that are meant to show his exquisite empathy for audiences. The question Edwards leaves unasked is the most important one: "You can't see through my shtick yet, can you?"