The End of John Edwards

In the three national campaigns he has run – two for the Democratic presidential nomination and one as the party’s vice presidential nominee – John Edwards won a grand total of one contest as an active candidate*: the South Carolina primary in 2004. But amazingly, he managed to emerge from each losing effort with his political standing not only unharmed, but actually enhanced.

His 2004 primary bid, which peaked with his strong second-place showing in the lead-off Iowa caucuses, ended with wide agreement among activists and party leaders that his Southern roots, working-class appeal, and powerful communication skills would make him the ideal running mate for John Kerry, who finally gave in and offered Edwards his No. 2 slot. And when the Kerry-Edwards ticket went down to defeat in November – a loss that may have been aided by Edwards’ inexplicably underwhelming performance in his debate against Dick Cheney – Edwards largely got a pass, with many in the party arguing that the outcome would have been different if the ticket had simply been reversed. And then there was this year’s Democratic race, in which Edwards again reached his zenith in Iowa but exited the race a hero to the netroots and the clear choice of many activists for the VP slot or a prominent role (attorney general?) in a Democratic administration next year.

Now, though, the National Enquirer, whose initial report last December set about the chain of events that produced Edwards’ admission on Friday of an extramarital affair, has done what three failed national campaigns couldn’t by ending Edwards’ future in national politics. The catch is: Edwards doesn’t seem to realize it yet.

In a statement released late Friday afternoon, hours before a pre-taped interview with ABC News was scheduled to air, Edwards copped to an affair with Rielle Hunter, a filmmaker and former campaign worker, "for a short period in 2006" but denied that he had fathered her child, something the Enquirer first alleged last December. His lengthy statement, though, feels far more political than confessional.

Most notably, Edwards characterized his previous responses to the Enquirer’s reporting – which have generally involved him sneering at reporters who have asked about it and branding the allegations "tabloid trash" – as "99 percent honest." His own top supporters don’t seem to agree. David Bonior, the former House Democratic Whip who managed the Edwards campaign this year, was quoted saying his boss had "betrayed" those who supported him.

It’s certainly true that sex scandals aren’t the automatic political career-killers that they used to be. Case in point: Bill Clinton, who denied his affair with Monica Lewinsky with the same straight-faced fervor that Edwards mustered to shoot down the Enquirer’s story. But that doesn’t mean they still can’t be deadly, as Eliot Spitzer, Jim McGreevey and Larry Craig can all attest. Determining whether a scandal is fatal is much more an art than a science.

Just consider the very similar cases of Spitzer and David Vitter, both of whom acknowledged paying prostitutes for sex. The factual differences between their cases were technical (Spitzer’s prostitute had crossed state lines to join him, a violation of an obscure and rarely invoked federal statute, while Vitter’s hadn’t), but morally, their crimes were equal. While the clamor for Spitzer to resign was immediate, universal and overwhelming, Vitter was able to wait the firestorm out and then return to his day-to-day life as a U.S. senator.

Similarly, Edwards – as long as his denial about fathering Hunter’s child is truthful – is guilty of the same moral crime as Clinton, committing adultery and then lying about it. But for subjective reasons, Edwards will almost certainly pay a much higher price than Clinton.

One difference is that when the Lewinsky scandal broke, the public was already predisposed to view Clinton as a playboy. From the day the Gennifer Flowers scandal broke in the 1992 campaign, Clinton’s image as a smooth-talking good ol’ boy with an eye for the ladies became fixed in popular culture. The Lewinsky scandal may have caught voters by surprise, but Clinton’s conduct was entirely consistent with their long-standing assessment of him and his character.

Jokes about Edwards’ sexual appetite, by contrast, have never been a staple of late-night comedy. That he’d cheat on his wife is a revelation to most voters. Moreover, the Edwardses, unlike the Clintons (who always acknowledged that their marriage had been rocky), have actively promoted their supposedly blissful partnership. And Edwards’ own message, very much unlike Clinton’s, is heavily tinged with morality. Like a modern-day William Jennings Bryan, he turned his campaigns (especially this year’s) into moral crusades, linking his commitment to the poor, downtrodden and forgotten to his Christian faith (and also often noting that his faith had made it a struggle for him to support gay rights). While Edwards hasn’t advocated sexual Puritanism, his holier-than-thou tone opens him to charges of hypocrisy.

There are other reasons to believe that he is done politically. Lying so convincingly for the past eight months lends lasting credibility to the charge that Edwards is little more than a packaged, silver-tongued trial lawyer. Plus, his willingness to let his top aides and supporters speak up in his defense reflects horribly on his character. Clinton had an ineffable warmth that prompted many people to overlook similar conduct. Edwards, as articulate as he is, simply doesn’t have the same ability.

And then there’s the issue of Elizabeth Edwards. In his statement, Edwards suggested that he had already confessed the affair to his wife and that she had forgiven him – long before the Enquirer story broke, and before her breast cancer returned early last year. Perhaps she will back him up on this publicly, and perhaps she won’t. It really doesn’t matter. Even before this scandal, she had become one of the more sympathetic figures on the national stage, widely admired for the grace and resolve she has shown in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis. Even if she publicly forgives him, Edwards will long be haunted by the perception that he betrayed his cancer-stricken wife.

One of his major strengths (at least within the Democratic Party) was always his perceived electability. That is now gone.

In the immediate future, the talk of Edwards as attorney general in an Obama administration is dead – not because the Senate would reject his nomination, but simply because no incoming president would willingly bring upon himself the media firestorm that would attend an Edwards appointment. Longer term, any return to politics in North Carolina, where Democrats have to be near-perfect simply to have a chance at winning, seems out of the question.

Edwards’ political appeal was rooted in his ability to turn a policy matter into a moral issue and to rouse his audience into action. That’s all gone now.

* The original version of this post failed to take into account Edwards’ post-withdrawal victory on April 17, 2004 in his home state of North Carolina. The End of John Edwards