It made headlines a few days ago when word leaked that Oprah Winfrey had been in North Carolina to tape an interview with Elizabeth Edwards that will air in early May—just as Edwards’ new book, which will supposedly address her husband’s extramarital affair, is released.
The news served as a reminder of the sad fate of John Edwards’ political career. Not long ago, he was on the cusp of unparalleled power and glory; and even when his presidential ambitions fell short last year, he still seemed, at just 55 years old, to have a bright political future—perhaps A.G. in the Obama administration, or a return to North Carolina politics, maybe even one more shot at the White House sometime down the road.
But now he lives in exile. When he or his wife make the news, Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter, and the lingering questions that surround it, features prominently in the coverage. Pressing ahead with a political career is hopeless. Any message he might have is drowned out whenever he shows his face. He’s the man who cheated on his cancer-stricken wife. That’s it.
Among the six major Democrats who sought their party’s nomination last year, Edwards’ fate is clearly the most pitiful. But he’s not the only one of them whose political career is in a much worse place now than it was back in 2008.
Chris Dodd, first elected to the Senate in 1980, spent much of his career toying with running for president before finally taking the plunge in ’08. Today, his standing in deep blue Connecticut is eroding by the day and his political career seems destined to end on Election Day 2010, if not sooner. And in New Mexico, Bill Richardson, who also made a long-anticipated presidential run last year, is facing a federal probe into a possible pay-to-play scheme involving his political action committee – a scandal that already forced him to withdraw as Obama’s pick for Commerce secretary.
By contrast, the other three Democrats who ran in ’08 are sitting pretty. Obama, obviously, was the biggest winner, but Hillary Clinton got about the best possible consolation prize—a posting as secretary of state that has already improved her national standing and will probably position her for another presidential run. And Joe Biden is enjoying a stint as vice president that has elevated his stature and that, at least in theory, keeps the presidential aspirations alive that he’s nursed for decades.
The disparity between the haves and have-nots from the Democratic presidential class of ’08 is startling. Three of last year’s candidates reaped immediate and significant rewards. The other three are now facing shame and oblivion.
This is not usual. Sure, there have been past candidates, like Gary Hart in 1988, who were undermined by scandal and whose careers promptly evaporated. But his example is the exception.
Even losing candidates almost always emerge stronger from the experience. Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Dole, for instance, put their names in the G.O.P. mix for 2000, only to be quickly pushed aside by George W. Bush. But they both ended up with Senate seats two years later. Paul Tsongas was a former senator with zero percent name recognition when he decided to run for the 1992 Democratic nod; he fell short, but emerged as a national voice on fiscal issues.
Or just look at last year’s Republican field. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee both lost out to John McCain, but each is now a prime contender for 2012—and Huckabee even got a TV show out of the deal. And while Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson were both embarrassed as their high poll numbers vanished and their campaigns ended with little support, they each remain relevant national voices; they didn’t win, but they weren’t ruined, either.
What’s most interesting about the cases of Edwards, Dodd and Richardson is that each man’s post-campaign demise was triggered, at least in part, by the campaign itself.
Take Edwards, who offered the following explanation for his affair when he gave his only interview on the subject last summer, to ABC’s Bob Woodruff: “I went from being a senator, to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate and becoming a national public figure, all of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You’re invincible. And there will be no consequences.”
Dodd, for his part, is now being haunted by the way he financed his bid. With little grass-roots support, he leaned on his extensive contacts in the financial services industry—executives who knew his presidential campaign was going nowhere but who also knew that donating to the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee was never a bad idea.
As a result, Dodd, who didn’t last past Iowa (where he finished with 0 percent), ended up leading all candidates, Democratic and Republican, in one category: contributions from AIG suits. This has made it ridiculously easy for his opponents to tag Dodd as the bought-and-paid-for symbol of the negligence that produced the current economic crisis.
Richardson, too, might have been undone by the quest for presidential campaign cash. A federal grand jury is now looking into how a California-based company received $1.5 million in fees from the New Mexico state government after donating $100,000 to Richardson’s political action committee in 2004. That money didn’t directly finance Richardson’s ’08 bid, but it did help lay the groundwork.
If they had it to do over, you can bet that Edwards, Dodd and Richardson would all think twice before giving in to the presidential bug.