The Convenient Tale of the John Edwards Saboteurs

George Stephanopoulos injected some unexpected intrigue into This Week when he declared that a group of former John Edwards staffers had secretly conspired in late 2007 and early 2008 to make sure that their candidate's presidential campaign would fail.

Stephanopoulos, who didn't name any of the staffers, made the claim after bringing up the story of Edwards' affair with the campaign videographer, which is back in the news thanks to the release of Elizabeth Edwards' new book. As George Will began pointing out how disastrous it would have been had Edwards emerged as the Democratic nominee last year, Stephanopoulos cut him off and said, "That wasn't going to happen."

"I've actually talked to a lot of former Edwards staffers about this," he explained. "And it's amazing to me. They had their doubts. They believed up until December (of 2007) that this was not true.

"By December and January, several people in his circle started to think, ‘You know what, this is probably true.' The affair. And they actually had something of a doomsday strategy. Several of them had gotten together and basically said, ‘If it looks like he's going to win, we're going to sabotage the campaign. We're going to blow it up.'"

The scheme, Stephanopoulos said, was never implemented because Edwards' odds of winning were already slim by late 2007 and early 2008. "But they say they're Democrats first and that they would have found a way to get the information out so that he was not the nominee," he added.

Needless this say, this raises a few questions.

First, obviously, is: Who are the people "in his circle" who hatched this plan? Were they all staffers? Were they all high-level? How widespread within the Edwards universe was the conspiracy? And when did Stephanopoulos himself first learn of it? Stephanopoulos offered no hints.

Also: In talking to Stephanopoulos, is it possible that they were just engaging in a game of inside-the-Beltway C.Y.A.? That is, is this a case of a few chastened aides attempting to save face with a preeminent D.C. opinion-shaper (and a former top-level campaign staffer himself) after working on a candidacy that, in hindsight, could have destroyed a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Democratic Party. Sure, George, we were working hard for him, but it's not like we were really going to let him win!

And when would this conspiracy have been implemented? And how? And would it have worked? Sure, it (sort of) makes sense that the staffers would have held off in late '07 and early '08. Edwards was running far behind Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and an early elimination seemed likely.

But his campaign did craft a victory strategy after Obama's victory in Iowa, where Edwards finished second, just ahead of Clinton. The basic idea, even though his aides wouldn't quite say it, was to eliminate Clinton and to force a one-on-one race between Obama and Edwards-a race that would favor Edwards when white voters panicked at the idea of nominating a black candidate. This is why, if you remember, Edwards so aggressively attacked Clinton in the final pre–New Hampshire debate. Her campaign seemed to be in a free fall and he hoped to finish her off on the spot.

We now know how hopeless that game plan was: Clinton rebounded to win New Hampshire, Edwards exited the race a few weeks later and white voters were never as scared of Obama as cynics believed they would be. But what if it had worked? When would the Edwards staffers have made their move? After South Carolina? Super Tuesday? Ohio? And what would they have done? Leaked word to the press that they actually believed the affair rumors? Tried to undermine his campaign through intentionally awful strategic decisions? If Edwards had been on a roll, would this have been enough to stop him?

The bigger question, though, is what responsibility—if any—staffers have when they believe that they are working for a candidate whose nomination will doom their party.

Stephanopoulos stressed that the Edwards staffers felt a duty as "Democrats first" to protect their party. Looking back now, it seems obvious that their concerns were well placed. Had Edwards secured the nomination and had confirmation of his affair then emerged last summer, his candidacy likely would have imploded. If he tried to stay in the race for the fall, he almost certainly would have lost. If he pulled out, there would have been chaos in the party, with Clinton and Obama suddenly vying for an open nomination. The convention probably would have been bloody.

But maybe that wouldn't have happened. Remember that the Edwards story only broke when he was caught by the National Enquirer paying a secret visit to his mistress in Beverly Hills last July. At the time, he was a former candidate. Had he been in the thick of a campaign and on the verge of accepting the nomination, he might not have been so reckless. And without the Enquirer's smoking-gun confirmation, the story might have existed for the rest of the campaign as only the latest in a long line of unconfirmed (and vehemently denied) affair rumors involving presidential candidates. It's possible that no one would have known and that Edwards would have gone on to win in the fall.

Was it the role of an Edwards staffer who believed the affair rumors were true to undermine Edwards so that the party wouldn't be at risk in the fall? Perhaps you believe the answer is yes (and maybe you're right). But then where do you draw the line?

In early 1992, after all, Bill Clinton seemed every bit the ticking time bomb that Edwards was last year. Like Edwards, his dirty laundry was aired in a tabloid (a January '92 Star report that alleged a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers), and like Edwards he dismissed the report as trash. Rumors of other indiscretions—"bimbo eruptions" was the term used at the time—were rampant. Surely, Clinton's aides, particularly those who'd been with him since his Arkansas days, had to be suspicious that the Flowers story was true—and that there would be more (probably many more) like it to follow. And surely they had to be afraid that it might destroy their party in the fall with Clinton as the nominee.

Clinton's aides, of course, didn't sabotage him, and he went on to win in the fall. His victory was remarkable: A year earlier, when Gary Hart's 1987 demise was the standard against which political sex scandals were measured, no one would have believed that a candidate with Clinton's baggage could ever win the presidency.

Which raises one more question: Did Stephanopoulos, a top Clinton aide in the '92 campaign, ever think of sabotaging his boss?

The Convenient Tale of the John Edwards Saboteurs