John Edwards' Bursting Media Bubble

Will real press coverage help or hurt the VP candidate?


The central Republican charge against John Edwards, at least in these opening days of his role as John Kerry's running mate, is that Edwards is an insubstantial lightweight. Given the GOP's own history of nominating candidates manifestly unready to hold national office, that's not a becoming argument for the party to make. Nor, given the past success of such candidates from both major parties, has it proven particularly effective with voters. Nevertheless, Edwards does face an authentic challenge involving substance: His public persona has been floating on an insubstantial media bubble, and that bubble is already bursting.

During the primary season, just about everybody liked Edwards for his theatrical flair and his rare rhetorical skill. Everybody seemed to admire (and borrow from) his "Two Americas" speech, which managed simultaneously to define the candidate personally even as it positioned him politically. Edwards was, according to that speech, a champion of an underdog class from which he himself had emerged. Because he delivered that speech dramatically, as if it were a story that he was telling about himself—and indeed about his audience—for the first time every time, he was able to sell it to an impressive number of voters. Of course, he used that speech to emerge from the pack of Democratic contenders and to become John Kerry's major challenger in the primary homestretch.

Voters weren't the only ones who liked Edwards. Notoriously, the campaign press embraced him, too. Of the many, many stories filed about him from a succession of winter campaigns, not a single one of them seems to have been negative.

Edwards got a pass from the press on just about everything, including some issues of potential interest. It was noted, for example, that most of his financial support came from trial lawyers (16 of his 20 top contributors were reportedly law firms), but that never emerged as an important theme of the coverage around him. Edwards own career as a trial lawyer was cited primarily as a training ground for his winning oratorical manner; whether, as some charged, he had built a fortune by knowingly persuading juries to accept flim-flam "junk science" in determining guilt and allocating financial penalties was similarly left unexplored.

Nor did Edwards' apparent weakness on a number of issues attract much attention. In debate settings, away from his well-rehearsed stump speech, Edwards sometimes appeared unprepared if not outright confused, for example about such then-pressing questions as the purpose and effect of the Defense of Marriage Act. Similarly, Edwards' politically convenient claim to have opposed NAFTA publicly (he was not yet in the Senate when NAFTA passed) was challenged by John Kerry but never really followed up by the campaign press. Instead, almost all the coverage was founded on the theme of Edwards as an articulate, appealing, and energetic political force.

It's a Beltway cliché that media favorites rarely win their party's nomination for high office, and it's a truism that's often cited as if it were a paradox. The implication is that friendly coverage from reporters should translate into support from voters. But that's a reductive view of the media's role in a lengthy campaign; there may actually be a better connection between friendly, unchallenging coverage and electoral failure.

For one thing, news stories that describe a candidate's apparent weaknesses can allow that candidate to address such issues in public. It's not as if only reporters could see, for example, that Edwards didn't know what he was talking about during some of the candidates' debates. Many voters could see it, too. With no sustained public dialogue about it, Edwards really had no obvious way to resolve voter doubts, leaving voters to take those doubts with them into the polling booth.

More importantly, issues raised about candidates in the course of honest media coverage test candidates' claims and explore personal and political subjects that candidates may choose to downplay. Those candidates who survive a series of such tests are unquestionably stronger for it (not to mention that they are the subjects of attention the whole time they are the objects of scrutiny). Voters know more about those candidates, can better judge weaknesses against strengths, and can conclude they are making a serious judgment. Candidates who never face these tests remain one-dimensional. There is an important sense in which candidates, voters, and the system itself rely on an inquisitive, scrutinizing press to make campaigns work. When the press instead chooses to present a candidate on his or her own terms, it's failing everybody.

A stark fact that is sometimes obscured by Edwards' positive coverage is that his best claim is to have exceeded early expectations without being able to build on his early success. Indeed, he won no more primaries than did Howard Dean or Wesley Clark: one. Aside from his native South Carolina, Edwards didn't even do well in the South, running behind in such states as Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia. Despite his efforts to cherry-pick primaries (another relatively unexplored subject of campaign coverage), he couldn't beat Clark in Oklahoma, couldn't sell protectionism in the Rust Belt, and couldn't make any headway at all against Kerry when they were last two serious candidates standing. True, he had outlasted other Democrats with far more experience, but Edwards' candidacy in its closing days was very like his early candidacy, when few people had heard of him. It had failed to develop depth, and that has much to do with the failure of the press to challenge it.

Could Edwards have used a press challenge to construct a stronger candidacy? That's what we're about to find out—that and whether Edwards has a second speech. The shiny disposition and positive message that served him well in the primaries are not attributes that have traditionally made for effective running mates. Their role has been to criticize and accuse the opposition, allowing the man at the top of the ticket to remain a noble visionary.

Edwards is a smart and skilled politician who enjoys the good will of many independents and swing voters; the question is whether he can apply the attributes that gained him that good will in a campaign where he must play a more negative role, and where he will be the object of far greater scrutiny. Indeed, there were probably more serious questions raised about Edwards in the 24 hours after he became Kerry's running mate than there were in the course of the winter primaries. Edwards' media bubble is bursting, and we're about to see whether that is bad news for him, or good.