The unbalanced ticket

Posted: Jul 08, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Whatever John Edwards does for a Democratic ticket led by John Kerry, he does not bring it balance. Apart from harsh words exchanged during the primary campaign season, the party's future presidential and vice-presidential nominees disagree on little (capital punishment and international trade are exceptions). Kerry-Edwards is an unbalanced ticket.
Ratings by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) for 2003 (the last year when both Sen. Kerry and Sen. Edwards were around to cast votes most of the time) put both in the same ideological pigeonhole. Out of 20 votes selected by the ADA for that year, not one found the two Democrats opposing each other. Neither voted against the ADA liberal line on any issue. They voted together opposing Miguel Estrada for judicial confirmation, killing Alaska oil drilling, opposing tax reduction, opposing Iraq reconstruction and opposing Republican prescription drug benefits.

 There is no sign Kerry was serious about reaching out to a more moderate running mate as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Michael Dukakis did with mixed results. Nor do Kerry's advisers take seriously the notion that Edwards, who looked like a loser for re-election in his own state of North Carolina this year before he dropped out, can win Southern electoral votes against George W. Bush.

 Why, then, was Edwards favored for vice president from the start, according to Kerry sources? The answer given is that Kerry wanted somebody best equipped to serve as vice president and succeed to the presidency if need be in a time of national peril. It is difficult to imagine a golden-voiced trial lawyer, who has been a less than distinguished U.S. senator in the first public office he has held, filling that description.

 Edwards's allure stems from the stir he created in the Democratic primaries after Kerry had swept to the front against Howard Dean. Following a lackluster beginning as a purported Southern moderate, Edwards plunged rhetorically to Kerry's left. In the summer of 2002, he described himself to me as "generally in the mainstream of America," adding: "I don't think we should pit one group of Americans against another." In the winter of 2004, his "Two Americas" formulation won praise from Democratic enthusiast James Carville as "the best stump speech I've ever heard."

 What appealed to Louisianan Carville did not go over that well with other Southerners. While winning in his neighboring state of South Carolina, Edwards finished behind Kerry in Tennessee, Virginia and border state Oklahoma. The sentiment for Kerry-Edwards came not from Dixie but from the Howard Dean movement.

 Since neither ticket-balancing nor an appeal to the South seems high on the Kerry agenda, what took so long to pick Edwards? Organized labor was pressing hard for Gephardt, who had a good personal relationship with Kerry. However, Kerry's real affection seemed directed toward Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, whose support (through his wife, Christie) helped save him in Iowa's critically important caucuses. Vilsack attracted Democrats who, looking at Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, wanted a governor on the ticket.

 However, political problems were posed by both Gephardt and Vilsack. Survivors of the Dean movement, cool enough toward Kerry by himself, would be frozen by Kerry-Gephardt. The fact that Kerry-Vilsack would have put two Roman Catholics on the ticket was daunting to some Democrats. But, according to Kerry advisers, Vilsack's problem was a resume that does not go beyond the borders of Iowa, a handicap in debating Vice President Dick Cheney about the war against terrorism. A fourth contender, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, was seriously considered but rejected for being a little too quirky.

 The irony is that Kerry, who disdained ticket-balancing in picking Edwards, probably would have gone for Sen. John McCain for the ultimate balanced ticket in the impossible event that the Republican would say yes. McCain, who is hawkish, pro-life, pro-nuclear power and anti-trial lawyer, voted the ADA line on only seven of its 20 selected votes in 2003 (a 35 percent liberal rating). John McCain would have been the first vice president since LBJ in 1960 to influence a presidential election's outcome. John Edwards will not.