John Edwards Profits By Playing the Outsider

012907 article wiseguys John Edwards Profits  By Playing the OutsiderA hundred years ago, there was William Jennings Bryan, an utterly unremarkable two-term Congressman who left Washington only to find fame on the Chautauqua Circuit as a lectern-pounding foe of big business, giant trusts and American imperialism.

These days, there’s John Edwards.

Like Bryan, an expert rhetorician who thrice secured the Democratic Presidential nomination, Mr. Edwards has discovered that it’s a lot easier for a politician to show the kind of “spine” that ignites the masses when he doesn’t actually have to craft legislation or cast a single roll-call vote.

Two years removed from his one-term stint as Senator, Mr. Edwards has shrewdly used his freedom from public office to carve out a promising niche as a populist folk-hero.

By contrast, his two main rivals—Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama—must both find ways to match their campaign rhetoric with legislative action. Theirs is the kind of thankless balancing act that helps explain why only two Presidents since Abraham Lincoln have been elected directly from the Senate.

Mr. Edwards gets to camp out in Council Bluffs and Spartanburg, charming his party’s true believers with broad-stroke progressive sermons that beg listeners to wonder why certain Democrats back in Washington seem so hesitant, so wishy-washy, so spineless.

No issue better illustrates the advantage Mr. Edwards has seized than the Iraq War—the authorization of which he voted for before he shed his Senatorial title.

That vote haunted Mr. Edwards like nothing else in 2003, when he entered the Democratic Presidential race with enviable hype, the supposed “new” Bill Clinton, a smooth-talking Southerner capable of picking the Republicans’ lock on the electoral map. Mr. Edwards gave it his best—and even more to his advantage, the party faithful genuinely wanted to like him—but his charm and drawl couldn’t prevent one question from coming up over and over as he excoriated the Bush administration on the stump: Why, then, did you vote for George Bush’s war?

As it turned out, just a few thousand additional votes in Iowa would have given Mr. Edwards a win in the leadoff caucuses in 2004, and maybe then the ensuing states would have fallen like dominos for him and not John Kerry.

This time, there are no pesky Senate votes to arrest Mr. Edwards’ early momentum. In preparation for his 2008 run, he publicly recanted his Iraq vote in the fall of 2005. And now, as Mr. Bush escalates the war, Mr. Edwards is making a beeline for the hearts and souls of the most devout war foes, embracing their calls for Congress to defund it.

“If you’re in Congress,” he said last week in a clear shot at Mrs. Clinton, “and you know this war is going in the wrong direction and you know that we should not escalate this war in Iraq, it is no longer O.K. to study your options and keep your private counsel. Silence is betrayal.”

Actually, Mr. Edwards knows well that “silence,” as he defines it, is a boon to his campaign—confirmation to the left-wing grassroots that his Senatorial foes really are gutless windbags. Without it, the Edwards ’08 brand would be crowded out of the market.

He also knows that the funding shutoff won’t happen, and for good reason.

For one thing, sufficient funds have already been appropriated and spent to maintain the status quo in the short term. Beyond that, the Bush administration—which has plainly demonstrated its willingness to skirt the will of Congress by exercising any number of executive prerogatives—would have little trouble shuffling money around to sidestep any funding “shutoff.”

And Democrats in Congress—even if they could muster the votes, which they can’t—would be pilloried, likely to devastating effect, for endangering the lives of the troops if they ever went the funding route. Unlike in the Vietnam era, the term “Support Our Troops” now carries a powerful emotional meaning for most Americans, even those with serious questions about the war itself.

Mr. Edwards’ war rhetoric, appealing enough to have secured him consistent leads among Iowa Democrats in early polls, might not have the same righteous ring were he still a North Carolina Senator. “What are you doing about it now, and why aren’t you doing more?” inquisitive activists would be asking him, the same way they will eventually quiz Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.

But that’s no longer an issue. As a former Senator, Mr. Edwards can boldly promise decisive action in the future, with a built-in excuse for not delivering any in the present.

In 1896, the aforementioned Bryan quite literally talked his way to the Democratic Presidential nomination, beating Grover Cleveland’s mighty machine on the strength of his immortal “cross of gold” speech. Mr. Edwards is betting that, once again, words will triumph over deeds.