Sympathy Won’t Count When Clinton Attacks

040207 article wiseguys Sympathy Won’t Count When Clinton AttacksIt’s tempting to believe that the terrible revelation of Elizabeth Edwards’ incurable cancer will benefit the John Edwards candidacy, and that the understandable sympathy generated by the announcement will render the campaign immune to political attack.

But precedent suggests otherwise.

Last week’s announcement that Mr. Edwards’ wife and frequent campaign surrogate is now facing incurable Stage IV breast cancer should call to mind the story of Paul Tsongas, the Massachusetts Democrat who sought his party’s Presidential nomination in 1992, five years after receiving a bone-marrow transplant to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the disease that had prompted him to give up his U.S. Senate seat in 1984.

Tsongas began that campaign in such obscurity that his initial flirtations with running, in early 1991, were largely overshadowed by idle speculation that another Massachusetts Democrat, John Silber, the volcanic president of Boston University who was then fresh off a near-miss gubernatorial bid, might enter the race. Four years after the debacle of the Dukakis campaign, one of the few commentators who bothered to weigh in dismissed Tsongas as “just another geek from Massachusetts.”

But Tsongas’ story infused his quest with a sense of moral purpose. He asked a country mired in a painful economic slump to sacrifice, opposing calls for tax cuts and advocating politically toxic reforms to financially wobbly entitlement programs. He spoke about the national debt—then just over $4 trillion, now nearly $9 trillion—as a generation’s abdication of its responsibility. And he printed all of his ideas in an 85-page booklet (“A Call to Economic Arms”), handing out copies like they were bumper stickers or buttons.

“I should not be alive today,” Tsongas said at the height of the campaign. “It’s been 2,036 days since I found out I have cancer. I feel a responsibility that I have survived, and there is an obligation to that responsibility.”

In ’92, Tsongas demonstrated the power of a political message wrapped inside a grander purpose. From his campaign’s humble origins, he steadily built traction, ultimately winning the lead-off New Hampshire primary by seven points and—however fleetingly—usurping Bill Clinton as the Democratic front-runner.

The purity of Tsongas’ message was heightened by the contrast between his personality and that of Mr. Clinton, the smooth-talking Southerner who bounced from one scandal to the next, all the while promising sweeping middle-class tax cuts as some pain-free, focus-group-friendly cure-all for the nation’s economic woes. Tsongas, a Peace Corps veteran who never outgrew Lowell, Mass., the hard-luck mill town of his birth, exuded dignity and humility, favoring a low-key public style that was heavy on self-deprecation and hard policy truths. Some asked where his middle-class tax-cut plan was, and he simply replied, “I’m not Santa Claus.” Voters, at least initially, loved it.

Similarly, there is reason to believe that Mr. Edwards—now firmly ensconced in the top tier of Democratic contenders but chasing, as Tsongas did, a candidate named Clinton—will find his position enhanced, at least in the short run.

Mr. Edwards, who this week explicitly rejected the idea of seeking votes based on compassion, is in many ways Tsongas’ ideological and stylistic opposite. But his wife’s diagnosis figures similarly to elevate his moral standing, and to reinforce the idea of his ’08 bid as more of a cause than a candidacy. There is now a new authenticity—and urgency—to his provocative rhetoric on the Iraq War, poverty, and economic and social justice. As Mrs. Edwards told The New York Times this weekend: “My feeling is, if we gave up what we have committed to as our life’s work, wouldn’t I be getting ready to die? That’s what I’d be doing. This cause is not just John’s cause, it’s my cause.”

And just as his rivals were at first hesitant to attack Tsongas—“St. Paul,” some rival campaigns privately sneered—Mr. Edwards’ foes will likely hold their fire for some time, not wanting to chance a public backlash.

But, as Tsongas learned and as Mr. Edwards almost certainly will, there is a limit to that sort of patience.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton was among the most persistent voices in February 1992 urging her husband to go after the ascendant former Senator. And Mr. Clinton did—in a lavish, ugly and utterly dishonest series of public attacks and negative ads that absurdly portrayed Tsongas, who still resided on Mansur Street in Lowell, as a tool of Wall Street interests and a foe of Social Security, Medicare and Israel.

Tsongas notched up a handful of wins after New Hampshire, but when Mr. Clinton swept the South on Super Tuesday and dominated in Illinois and Michigan a week later, the man from Lowell was defeated.

Should she face a comparable threat from Mr. Edwards early next year, there is no reason to believe that Mrs. Clinton will have forgotten what she instinctively understood in the winter of 1992: Dirty politics works.

Steve Kornacki works as an organizer for Unity08, a group that advocates a bipartisan Presidential ticket in 2008.