Democrats Still Need Reagan’s Supporters

It was quite the day.

New Yorkers woke up and learned from a New York Post front-page “exclusive” that

Democratic nominee John Kerry had chosen U.S. Representative Richard Gephardt of

Missouri to be his running mate. That newspaper is now worth 25 bucks on the

collectors’ market.

Mr. Gephardt- twice a failed candidate for President-was once the majority leader of

the House of Representatives. Under his watch, that mighty majority became the

ineffective minority. He raised and spent tens of millions on campaigns to take back the

House. He talked the language of class warfare, and Republicans laughed as the election

returns came in. Mr. Gephardt was the man for the rank and file.

Democrats needed someone on the ticket who knew where Cleveland was, who had seen

the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and considered it high art, and who could at least take a

shot at figuring why it appears that all the roads in Detroit and its suburbs are named after

miles. That person could have been Mr. Gephardt, or perhaps Governor Thomas Vilsack

of Iowa or Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana-anyone who had that honest Midwest look

would have fit. Such a candidate would have been able to start the prying-apart of the

most successful coalition of late in American politics: the Republican coalition of

Southern Protestants and Northern Catholics.

The profile of the typical voter the Democrats need to bring back home is as follows: a

fortysomething male, Catholic, a trade unionist more often than not, someone whose

father or grandfather might have served in Korea and Vietnam. In other words, the elusive

Midwestern man who is monogamous in his political beliefs, no liberal and, for too many

years, was happy to engage in Democraticide.

But in the end, there was no Richard Gephardt, no Evan Bayh, no Thomas Vilsack. John

Edwards? He is handsome. Great smile. Works hard. Talks optimism. He’s from North

Carolina. Putting him on the ticket says to one and all that Democrats really do like

NASCAR racing.

It’s hard to picture patrician-looking John Kerry chomping down with gusto on a slab of

pig ripped from its place on a full-bodied porker, riding in the pig roaster attached to the

backs of so many pickup trucks in Mr. Edwards’ adopted state.

But you could imagine John Edwards doing just that. You can imagine him smiling on a

good summer day. You could see him at his human best-a man who can at one moment

pick apart Vice President Dick Cheney and, afterwards, pray with sincere devotion. If

anything else, Mr. Edwards’ faith shows that religion is not simply the province of those

who wear boots, buckles and eat barbecue while they attack those who can’t afford the

cost of a cheap Stetson.

To do all this, John Edwards will have to be everyman-hard to do when, as a plaintiffs’

trial lawyer, he’ll need a back-covering metal vest to deflect the arrows that will be

launched at him from the business community’s quivers. The fact is, though, that with or

without John Edwards, the party’s target is still the Reagan Democrats-blue-collar

Catholic men. Charisma can only get you so far.

Mr. Edwards represents the hope that the Democrats can retake the South. Can they?

They’ll have a better chance when Sinatra plays the Paramount again. Remember, Mr.

Edwards himself was barely elected to the Senate six years ago. Can he help in states like

West Virginia? Yes. So what? If you don’t win Ohio, just keep driving south from

Cleveland until you hit Wheeling.

What John Edwards will do is help to rally the Democratic base. Rest assured that before

Mr. Kerry settled on Mr. Edwards, the list of potential running mates was the subject of

extensive research. But not the kind you think: The test was which potential running mate

had the best chance of rallying the party’s elected officials. They’re the people who have

to approve of the running mate so that they’ll be inspired to get their constituents to the

voting booths. Mr. Edwards is their choice, and that will create the unity needed to bring

the battle to George Bush.

By any measure, it may still come down to the heartland. And although New York City

Democrats might like John Edwards, we on the Right Coast sometimes overstate our

might. The night of the Post’s spectacular scoop, my wife and I went to Yankee Stadium.

Our son bleeds pinstripes, but he was away, so we grabbed that 11-year-old’s tickets and

ate a lot of frankfurters in pretty good seats. The opposition was the Detroit Tigers. New

Yorkers figured it would be an easy one. After all, these were the Yanks. The other guys?

They used to make a lot of cars in that town, and their streets are named after miles.

The New Yorkers disrespected the heartland. And boy, did the Tigers kick New York’s

butt.