Granted. The issue of John Edwards’ pricey haircut is a silly one. And its staying power—the story is weeks old, yet the press still asks about it—is rightly insulting to Democrats who want their Presidential primary defined by weightier things.
But the truth is that it matters. It’s exactly the kind of tidbit that Republicans have used—to devastating effect—against three of the last four Democratic nominees, utterly overwhelming Democratic efforts to focus the elections on policy.
The G.O.P. machine tore up Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry, turning them into icons of cultural elitism and rallying popular resentment against them. “Hairgate” could be seen as a warning sign—and not the first—that Mr. Edwards fits that mold a little too comfortably.
The stories generated by the revelation that the Edwards campaign had spent $400 for a trim fed into an ongoing attempt to caricature the former Senator as a slick, rich hypocrite—a “limousine liberal” who lectures about poverty while living in gated opulence.
The haircut affair, remember, was preceded by this winter’s story about Mr. Edwards’ new home—a 28,000-square-foot “compound” outside Chapel Hill, N.C., complete with an indoor basketball court. All for a man who has used his stump speech to implore audiences not to live in economic segregation.
More recently came the news of Mr. Edwards’ lucrative consulting gig with a $30 million hedge fund.
He’s sought to defend himself, claiming that what’s important is that he hasn’t forgotten his own humble roots. Maybe that will satisfy Democratic primary voters. But recent history shows that the general election is a different matter.
The G.O.P. turned 40 states against Michael Dukakis in 1988 by casting him as a bloodless technocrat—“a card-carrying member of the ACLU” who hated the Pledge of Allegiance, loved flag-burning and coddled criminals like Willie Horton.
The tactic worked again in 2000, when Al Gore was made out to be a serial embellisher who’d claim credit for just about anything if it would help his lifelong effort to win the Presidency. And the effects were even more devastating in 2004, when the spirit of the Bush campaign’s political assassination of John Kerry was best captured by one Bush advisor’s anonymous quip that “he looks French.”
Some claim that those Democrats simply erred in not responding quickly and forcefully. But consider what happened to Mr. Kerry just last fall, when he was accused by the same G.O.P. attack dogs of insulting the intelligence of U.S. troops in Iraq. As if to prove he’d learned his lesson, Mr. Kerry defended himself and refused to cede an inch. And he was pummeled even worse than he was during the ’04 campaign.
The real problem for Democrats isn’t simply that they’ve been passive. It’s that their chosen candidates have, in too many cases, played right into the G.O.P.’s attempts to paint them as out-of-touch phonies.
For instance, Mr. Dukakis, a lifelong resident of Brookline, Mass., used his first trip to Iowa in 1987 to suggest that the state’s farmers, panicked by their region’s cratering agricultural economy, diversify and try growing Belgian endive. His audience was stupefied.
Notably, Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, happened to be accompanying Mr. Dukakis that day. Asked to chime in, Mr. Clinton—the only Democrat in recent times to overcome the G.O.P.’s caricaturing and win the White House—ribbed Mr. Dukakis for advocating “yuppie agriculture.” The crowd understood that.
Likewise, the G.O.P.’s attacks on Mr. Gore rang true with many voters in part because of his cringe-inducing penchant for weaving highly personal anecdotes into his public speeches—most notably, perhaps, the 1996 Democratic convention speech, in which he linked his sister’s deathbed words to the Clinton administration’s tobacco policies.
And anyone who deigned to examine Mr. Kerry’s climb up the Massachusetts political ladder couldn’t have been surprised by the effectiveness of the G.O.P.’s ’04 assault.
There was, for one thing, his failed bid for a Congressional seat in 1972, when he was 29. He ran in a district based in working-class Lowell, Mass., whose blue-collar residents were growing uneasy with the Vietnam War, just as they were weary of siding with the war’s young and outspoken opponents. As he would 32 years later, Mr. Kerry sought to use his status as a decorated combat veteran to assuage those voters.
But his G.O.P. opponent and the hostile publisher of the conservative Lowell Sun aggressively turned Mr. Kerry’s advantages against him, crafting a caricature that reduced his Vietnam service to a political opportunist’s effort to puff up his résumé for a future political campaign—all at the expense of loyalty to his fellow troops. The fact that Mr. Kerry does—and did—carry himself with an effete air explains why the same smears worked three decades apart.
No Democratic nominee will be immune to all of the G.O.P.’s attacks. But it’s worth asking whether Mr. Edwards is vulnerable to too many of them.
Steve Kornacki works as an organizer for Unity08, a group that advocates a bipartisan Presidential ticket in 2008.