3/23/2007

Elizabeth Edwards: Implications

John Edwards' recent announcement about his wife's health turned the political world upside down. Although everybody surely wishes Elizabeth Edwards a speedy recovery, it is impossible to analyze this situation without considering its impact on the presidential race, and in particular, John Edwards' fortunes. Several columnists have taken stabs at assessing the fallout and consequences of this unfortunate news.

CNN's senior political analyst Bill Schneider views his wife's cancer as an opportunity for Edwards to demonstrate his toughness while showing that he is not immune to the average American's concerns despite living in an expansive estate that is anything but average. I can see his point, but I think that he risks looking "callous" instead of "tough."

Washington Post political writer Chris Cillizza provides a pretty good analysis of the situation by breaking it down into what we do and don't know about this development. One of the major "don't knows" is how the public will respond to Edwards' decision to continue his campaign. Does Edwards really think he can just say he'll keep fighting and shrug this off?

CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield stays away from the political angle of this story and focuses moreso on how life and fate sometimes have their own agenda:

But the news out of North Carolina today is one more reminder that no one--not even those of accomplishment, wealth, and power--is immune from the forces that are simply beyond our control.

Let me tell you what I think.

I think Edwards is making a terrible mistake by staying in the race. While he may think he's coming across as strong and resolute by toughing it out on the campaign trail, I really think he risks looking cold and selfish. How can you "continue your day job" when your wife has been diagnosed with a recurring bout of cancer? How is he going to be able to stay on message from now on if every other question he fields at a press conference or campaign stop is about his wife's prognosis instead of his plans for health care, Iraq, taxes, and immigration? And if he does attempt to talk about "the issues," people are going to wonder why he's not focusing more on his own family.

And, as Chris Cillizza alluded to, what if his wife's condition deteriorates? Would John Edwards really be willing to risk being seen as placing his own political ambitions above his wife's health? Yes, Elizabeth Edwards has said that she wants him to stand up and fight instead of "cowering in the corner," but at what cost? Do you remember how cold and impersonal Michael Dukakis came across in the 1988 presidential debate when Bernard Shaw asked him how he felt about the death penalty if his own wife were raped and murdered? That was the beginning of the end of his campaign! Even though John Edwards is arguably a better speaker than Dukakis, does he really want his actions to do the talking in this case? How can you be hosting fundraisers when your own wife is suffering in a hospital bed? How can his media consultant sleep at night in light of his decision to press on?

Running for president is a big deal. It's something you have to totally engross yourself with. You can't afford to be distracted. Bill Richardson, a rival candidate who happens to be a governor, is distracted by his responsibilities in Santa Fe, for example. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd are sometimes distracted by votes they must cast in the Senate. But what about a sick spouse who you've been with for 30 years? Aren't a man's obligations to his wife more important than to his job? Are his supporters really going to stick around, or are they going to quietly seek out other candidates? After all, they're being asked to commit to a man who might not even make it to the Iowa caucuses next January!

Granted, the other candidates and the media are going to have no choice but to treat John Edwards with kid gloves for the next few weeks. But do Democratic voters or the electorate in general want to place their hope in a man who may conceivably become a widower while in office? How will that affect his judgment regarding policy? Will he be able to keep an even keel psychologically and emotionally?

I worry that John Edwards is going to look like he's a bit too hungry for the presidency if he continues his campaign. He already has to be careful not to feed into the "ambulance-chasing lawyer" caricature that has gained a bit of traction. Continuing to campaign in earnest while his wife is sick may make him seem a bit too opportunistic.

Who is the biggest loser here, aside from the Edwards family? It's Tom Vilsack. Edwards has consistently been leading the polls in Iowa, or at the very least, he has been running stronger there than he has been nationally. Tom Vilsack needed a strong showing in Iowa to be considered viable, but he couldn't do it and ended up dropping out. This is largely due to Edwards. Had Vilsack stuck around, I think he could have scooped up a lot of Edwards supporters because Edwards and Vilsack both appeal to the populist wing of the Democratic Party. Surely Vilsack is kicking himself now.

Another indirect casualty of this may be John McCain, who has also suffered from health-related problems. Because of the physical rigors of being POTUS (President of the United States), a candidate's health and vigor are subtle undercurrents that people take into consideration when casting their votes. Do you remember James Stockdale, Ross Perot's vice presidential running mate in the 1992 campaign? How do you think he came across when he asked a debate moderator to repeat a question because "he didn't have his hearing aid on?" I think that was one of the major turning points in Perot's campaign because people began to think that they just didn't look like presidential material. McCain should worry about becoming collateral damage for this very reason.

On the other hand, Obama could benefit from this news. He is young, active, and vibrant--just like Edwards. Both he and Edwards are running as "hope" candidates, so Edwards fans whose support has become soft as a result of his wife's diagnosis may be willing to give Obama a second look. Obviously, all the second-tier candidates stand to benefit from this as well because it gives them a chance to pitch their case to new soft Edwards supporters or newly unaffiliated voters. Heck, the entire Democratic Party can benefit from this simply because it puts health care back in the spotlight, an issue on which voters tend to trust Democrats more than Republicans.

But back to John Edwards. It's obvious he wants to be president. I'm sure he was wondering why he had to play second fiddle to the inept John Kerry in 2004. And it seems like he never stopped running for president after his loss three years ago. His time in Iowa since then has helped him in the polls, but sometimes you just have to know when to say when. John Kerry obviously wanted to be president. So did Al Gore. But that's just not how things worked out. Edwards is still young. If he were to temporarily put his national ambitions on hold and run for an office that would keep him closer to home (such as succeeding Mike Easley as North Carolina governor), that would allow him to stay near his wife while brushing up his own political resume, the thinness of which is often cited as one of his weaknesses now.

I would be interested in seeing polls measuring Edwards' support among female voters in light of this news about his wife's cancer. That's the demographic group I think he should be most concerned about. Do they want a strong man, or do they want a man who takes care of his wife? Simply put, as go women, so goes the Edwards campaign.

As for Ms. Edwards, best wishes for a speedy recovery.

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