John Edwards and the Prevailing Winds

On the trail with the Democratic dark horse


CEDAR RAPIDS—It's a beautiful Saturday evening, and more than a hundred Iowans who could be doing what other people do on beautiful Saturday evenings are gathered on the green at the Ushers Ferry Historic Village to hear a speech by John Edwards. He's scheduled to appear at the Linn County Democrats Family Barbecue, which has attracted not only local voters but a clutch of activists manning booths for other candidates and causes. As the crowd waits, partaking of hot dogs and hamburgers, the loudspeakers blare Bonnie Tyler singing, "I need a hero."

When he arrives, sporting faded Levi's and a light blue shirt, Edwards does a fair impression of one. In 2004, he offered himself as an optimistic centrist who could attract independent and Republican votes. But this year, he leans hard on themes tailored to appeal to the party faithful: raising the minimum wage, providing universal health insurance, strengthening labor unions, ending the "complete insanity" of President Bush's higher education policy, and, most important, pulling out of Iraq.

"We want to end this war in Iraq," he declares, standing in front of a large gazebo on the village green. "George Bush is not going to change until somebody makes him." He vows to withdraw at least 40,000 troops immediately and the rest within a year.

It's a spirited speech, and the crowd responds with cheers and whoops. They may have forgotten that five years ago, Edwards was sounding a different chord. "Iraq is a grave and growing threat," he wrote in The Washington Post. "America must act, and Congress must make clear to [Saddam] Hussein that he faces a united nation." Edwards has since renounced his vote in favor of the war resolution, saying he misjudged the threat because of faulty intelligence. But what he really misjudged was the politics of the moment.

Back in 2002, many Democrats in Congress were leery of emulating predecessors who opposed the 1991 Gulf War only to see the war go stunningly well. The few Democrats who crossed party lines to support the war, like Al Gore, earned a reputation for being tough, while those who voted against it were forever branded as soft on aggression. John Edwards, determined not to make one political mistake, made a worse one.

That leaves him looking for ways to demonstrate his courage, such as following in the footsteps of Bobby Kennedy in a tour of poverty-stricken areas. When asked questions by voters, he often begins his answer by saying, "I know it's not politically popular," or "I'm not going to tell you what you want to hear."

But his seemingly brave positions are ones that will do nothing to hurt him in the primaries. He's in favor of programs to encourage education in poor countries. He's against negotiating with the Hamas government in Gaza. He rejects "amnesty" for illegal immigrants but favors "an earned path to citizenship."

He excels, meanwhile, at the old-fashioned Democratic strategy of promising to shower voters with benefits at someone else's expense. Edwards is a fountain of ideas for what the government can do to solve every conceivable problem—paying for the first year of college for any student willing to take a part-time job, raising pay for teachers in rural schools and eradicating poverty.

But when it comes to paying for all this, he is short on suggestions. Universal health care, a position paper says, "will be funded principally by repealing the Bush tax cuts," though apparently he means only those benefiting the wealthy. He also talks about raising the tax rate on capital gains, but he hasn't decided by how much.

His campaign says he won't increase the deficit, but Edwards says reducing it is not his top priority. That's a contrast from the candidate of 2004, who promised to "get us back on the path to a balanced budget." Then, he said, "We have a moral responsibility not to leave trillions of debt to our children and our grandchildren."

But he concludes his remarks this evening without explaining his change of heart on the deficit, and proceeds to shake hands, accept good wishes and sign an autograph. With a car waiting for him, he strides away from the gazebo, at which point you might notice what sits atop it: A weather vane.