Last week, after an unusually civil Democratic debate in California, the media settled into a comfortable consensus: John Kerry and John Edwards were “courting” each other, holding back on the rough stuff with an eye to a Kerry-Edwards ticket in the fall.
Cut to Monday morning, after Sunday night’s debate in New York, and you get a very different picture. Edwards and Kerry gave the appearance not of courting each other, but of going through a particularly nasty divorce. Edwards was all scrappy belligerence, Kerry cold disdain. What happened?
Edwards, of course, has cast himself as a sunny, upbeat campaigner, so it was all the more striking to see him going after Kerry. New York was by far his most combative performance to date — odd, if the assumption is true that he’s vying for the No. 2 spot. Dan Rather attempted to call Edwards out on a run for vice president by asking, “are you in the position of saying, “Listen, it’s late on, and I’m pretty much playing for vice president now, and I don’t want to ask him the tough questions”? To which Edwards emphatically replied, “Oh, no. Oh, no, no. Far from it.”
Then, when Rather asked Edwards if Kerry has “enough Elvis to beat George Bush?” Edwards offered only a tepid endorsement of his rival. “I know John Kerry,” he said. “I like him very much. And he and I have known each other for years.”
William Saletan writes in Slate that the all- new Edwards was right on; in fact, he did what he should have done a long time ago:
“This was the performance John Edwards desperately needed to boost himself to a decent showing on Super Tuesday. Did it come too late? We’ll find out. Edwards should have done this Thursday night in Los Angeles. The panelists in that debate begged him to take over, but he failed. This morning’s panelists begged harder, and he delivered.”
Edwards clearly saw the debate as his last chance to show voters that there really is some policy daylight between him and Kerry. He returned — and returned — to one of his old standbys, the old “Washington insider” barb.
“The fundamental issue in this election,” he thundered, “is whether the people of this country believe that we’re going to get change that originates in Washington or change that has to come from out here in the real world.”
Kerry fired back: “Now, I just listened to John talk about Washington, D.C.,” Kerry said. “Last time I looked, John ran for the United States Senate, and he’s been in the Senate for the last five years. That seems to me to be in Washington, D.C.” Which seems fair.
The Los Angeles Times notes:
“At times, the debate felt like an argument on a New York street corner where everyone tries to talk at once. Edwards, who has seemed virtually unflappable in almost all of the earlier debates, regularly appeared piqued at Kerry’s responses.”
Working from the assumption that Kerry will win the Democratic nomination (a not too far-fetched assumption, according to a wins as big as he’s expected to, will surely end the fight for the Democratic nomination. Walter Shapiro of USA Today discusses the possibility that Edwards performance proves that he is earnest in his run for the presidency, and not just doing whatever it takes to be considered for the vice presidency:
“In his willingness to mix it up with Kerry on Sunday, Edwards may have put to rest cynical claims that he really has been auditioning for the role of vice-presidential candidate. What appears to be happening with Edwards is more subtle than such conspiratorial interpretations of his motivation in continuing as Kerry’s last plausible challenger.”
But let’s face it: Edwards most likely won’t win the nomination. And in that case, wouldn’t he love a spot on Kerry’s ticket? Dan Balz of the Washington Post speculates that this debate may have shown that a) Kerry might not want him, and b) their personalities might clash:
“…Democrats watching Sunday’s debate may wonder whether the chemistry between the two men would allow that, even if practical political considerations and pressures inside the party argue for it.
Kerry allies say privately that the senator is not a particular fan of Edwards, and a question to Kerry about what he has learned from Edwards about how to be a more likable candidate must have rankled the man who is in control of the Democratic race.
Edwards has run a generally positive campaign, and even in drawing distinctions with Kerry, he has been careful not to let things become too personal. But there was little evidence of any genuine warmth or affection between the two on Sunday.
There is no good way to campaign for the vice presidency. Edwards’s allies debate privately what makes the most sense, if Edwards is truly interested in being considered for the ticket. Should he campaign hard against Kerry in an effort to demonstrate his vote-getting appeal in primaries and caucuses, or should he scale back his criticisms in an effort not to inflict damage on Kerry that the Republicans could exploit in the general election?
On Sunday, Edwards walked that line carefully, nicking Kerry but avoiding an all-out attack. Still, Kerry did not look pleased. If the race goes on much longer, the senator and his advisers may be even less charitable toward Edwards and his tactics. That is why, once Tuesday’s voting results are in, Edwards will face a most difficult decision.”
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that all this guesswork about filling out the Democratic ticket may be an act of futility. The hype over who will be chosen veep most likely won’t end until the eve of the Democratic convention in July, and if history is any guide, the media guesses will be wrong. Howard Kurtz writes on Feb. 11:
“The veepstakes is a caldron of rumor, hype and guesswork. In 1992, various pundits said Bill Clinton would pick Bob Kerrey, Lee Hamilton or Bob Graham. Four years later, almost no one expected Bob Dole to pick his longtime rival Jack Kemp. In 2000, there was a flood of media predictions that George W. Bush would pick either Tom Ridge or Frank Keating, with a last-minute flurry around John McCain. Almost no one saw Dick Cheney, who supervised the vice presidential selection, getting the nod.”