President of What
Apparently this John Edwards ad is a blockbuster: Hits the right marks, pounds Edwards' themes, starts the tears flowing like an Usher ballad.
I actually think it's one of the most sleazy, manipulative little political commercials of recent years. "If you're looking for heroes, don't look to me," says Edwards. "Don't look to Elizabeth." No problem! But why shouldn't I?
"We have support. We have health care. We have the American people behind us." There's the first invocation (so far) of the non-existant Edwards personality cult. At the start of his events, Edwards often says something like "a lot of you are asking how Elizabeth is doing. She's fine!" And I hear that as often as not this gets a muted, bemused reaction.
So, think of the working people: "They are the ones that we speak for." Hey, thanks again. "They are the ones that we stand up for." You're too kind. I'm sure America's Montage Farmers are going to sleep easier tonight because John Edwards exercised his larynx and lower body.
"And Elizabeth and I decided in the quiet of a hospital room." Subtle. "After 12 hours of tests and after getting very bad news." Even subtler. His wife has cancer. "We're not going to quietly go away. Instead we're going to go out there and fight for what it is we believe."
You know, Mitt Romney's wife has multiple sclerosis. Obviously that's not going to shorten her life the way Elizabeth Edwards' cancer will shorten hers. But it's the kind of thing that could stir up sympathy and handkerchief-clutching out there in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the Romneys only ever talk about it when asked. There's no TV ad pimping her illness. If Romney has no emotions, than Edwards has only the basest ones. There's not enough Lysol on the eastern seaboard to scrub his slime away.
But I don't want to pick on Edwards. We're starting to see a cleavage between ego-driven and movement-driven presidential campaigns. The most ego-driven Democratic campaign is still Hillary Clinton's. As she showed this week her staff will turn any attack into an unacceptable personal assault. She didn't parselmouth her way out of an immigration question: The mean other candidates piled onto her. Barack Obama's rhetoric is mostly about the average voter; he wants "us" to take back politics, he's one of "us" against Washington. Hillary's campaign is about her being president. Your power depends on whether or not the president thinks you're "invisible," and if you give her your vote she will gratefully remember that you exist.
Clinton's, Obama's and Edwards' messages are illustrative of how they view the presidency. For Clinton it's a restoration of her political machine, the one that was doing such a great job before the-Supreme-Court-handed-George-Bush-the-presidency. For Edwards it's a bully pulpit that he'll use to bully people, taking away Congress's health care until they give it to you, etc. For Obama it's an amorphous inspirational job; it should be more open, more accessible. Less power should flow towards it, more power should flow towards you.
Of course all of these guys look like pikers next to Ron Paul. He seems almost embarrassed that he has to be the vehicle for a movement to dissolve executive power. "I may not be the greatest messenger," goes one of his lines, "but this is the greatest message." His other formulation is stronger.