Oddly enough, it was with his answer to a question about education during the CNN/YouTube presidential debate last night that John Edwards showed how crucial he believes his $400 haircut to be.
After a YouTube user inquired about whether the candidates had sent their children to public or private school, moderator Anderson Cooper told viewers that it was his impression that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Mr. Edwards had all gone the private route. Immediately, Mr. Edwards corrected him.
“I’ve got four kids, and all of them went to public schools,” the former trial lawyer emphatically declared, pausing to allow the audience to express its approval. “I’ve had four children, and all of them have gone to public school. I’ve got two kids who are actually here with me in Charleston tonight, two kids, Emma Claire and Jack, just finished the third grade in public school in North Carolina, and Jack just finished the first grade in public school in North Carolina.”
On the surface, it was a winning moment for the millworker’s son, proof of a common bond with America’s working men and women. Certainly, evangelizing about the virtues of public education is entirely consistent with the overarching populist themes of Mr. Edwards’s campaign.
But now consider the haircut brouhaha for a moment. Critics have charged that Mr. Edwards’ lavish personal spending on his own vanity habits undercuts his efforts to connect with and speak for middle and lower class voters – that he’s just another limousine liberal, paying lip service to the common man while pampering himself and his family with a lifestyle Joe Six Pack could never fathom.
Mr. Edwards’ backers and sympathizers have pushed back by calling the attention to his haircut habits a trivial, absurd, and inexcusable distraction from the grave and weighty Serious Issues that should define the campaign. FDR was a tireless champion of the poor, many of them have noted, and yet he lived a life of unalloyed privilege.
That same logic should apply to the public school question: If John Edwards (and FDR before him) can live in a house with dozens of rooms and still relate to the little guy, then surely whether his kids went to public or private school should have no bearing on his commitment to quality public education for the United States.
And yet his response tonight indicated otherwise. Yes, Mr. Cooper misspoke about the type of schooling the Edwards children had received, but the enthusiasm with which Mr. Edwards pounced confirmed that even he knows the importance voters place in believing that their leaders lead lives that are roughly consistent with the principles they preach in the public square.
When Mr. Cooper suggested that Mr. Edwards had sent his kids to private school, Mr. Edwards clearly realized the opportunity that he had been presented.
But beyond that, remember that teachers’ unions remain a powerful component of the Democratic coalition, and that their members are particularly crucial to Mr. Edwards’s hopes, since his strategy hinges on cornering the market on labor’s support. Sensing an opening tonight, the old trial layer demonstrated that he still knows the value of a strong personal story.
By going out of his way to talk about his own personal experience with North Carolina’s public schools and his willingness to entrust his children’s educations to them, he connected with his target audience in a more intimate, poignant way. The same effect would not be achieved by a candidate who said, “I decided that private school was best for my own kids, but I really do believe in public education.”
Mr. Edwards’ overall performance was stronger tonight than in any previous forums. On question after question, he was forceful, specific and thorough, painting a picture of government overrun by big interests and abetted by both parties, arguing (perhaps quite effectively) that “we can’t trade our insiders for their insiders.” (It probably helped him too that CNN showed frequent cutaway shots of his popular wife Elizabeth, a courtesy not extended to the other candidates.)
But even if no one noticed, Mr. Edwards’ unwittingly confirmed tonight that the haircut issue – and the questions about his 28 (or is it 29?) room gated house – will remain in-bounds. After all, if he can ask voters to judge him against his opponents based on whether his children went to public or private schools, then he can hardly expect them not to take his other personal details into account as well.