February 17, 2004,
By the time he reaches the end of his now-famous "Two Americas" stump speech, Sen. John Edwards has told crowds about an America in which a small group of rich people enjoy lives of untold luxury while everybody else can't get health care, can't pay the rent, can't buy a house, and in many cases, can't get enough to eat.
It's an ugly picture. But Edwards, who left his $3.8 million Georgetown home to chase the Democratic nomination for president, offers people hope. And the hope is this: "I can't change this country alone, but I know that you and I can change this country together. The reason I know that you and I can change America together is I believe in you, and you deserve a president who actually believes in YOU!"
As Edwards speaks, members of the audience might reasonably be expected to turn to one another and say, "What the hell does that mean?" But they don't. In fact, Edwards' crowds, from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina to those voting for him in today's primary in Wisconsin, love it. "I believe in you" is one of the candidate's biggest applause lines.
The point is not to make sense, but to show audiences that John Edwards cares deeply about them. In the same way that television consultants advise local news departments to put the words "you" or "your" in every promotion "Working 4 You!", "Seven On Your Side!" so Edwards wants you to know that he is working for you.
At one event in South Carolina, after a TV anchorman asked whether Edwards had become so rich and successful as a trial lawyer that he might find it difficult to relate to poor people, Edwards turned to the audience made up of, among others, poverty activists from around the country and said, "I grew up the way you grew up. I come from the same place. I spent 20 years in courtrooms fighting for YOU!"
He fought against big corporations, Edwards said, against big insurance companies, against the powerful all for YOU! The audience, which had earlier been wary of Edwards' wealth, ate it up. Now, in Wisconsin, Edwards is blasting NAFTA and free trade for YOU!
As phony as it sounds, Edwards "Working 4 YOU!" appeal is undeniably effective with a large number of Democratic voters.
Last week, exit pollsters asked voters in Virginia, "Which one candidate quality mattered most in deciding how you voted today?" The most important quality, cited by 26 percent of those polled, was "He can defeat George W. Bush." Among those people, Kerry destroyed Edwards, 63 percent to 22 percent. But the second-most important quality, cited by 20 percent of those polled, was "He cares about people like me." Among those people, Edwards handily defeated Kerry, 42 percent to 30 percent.
Democratic voters in Tennessee also ranked "he cares" as the second-most important candidate quality. Among them, Edwards beat Kerry 40 percent to 29 percent. And in South Carolina, where Democratic voters ranked "he cares" as the most important candidate quality, Edwards trounced Kerry 57 percent to 19 percent.
It's not a trivial issue. In each of those southern states, "he cares" was chosen as the most important candidate quality by one-fifth to one quarter of the Democratic electorate. In other states, the number was smaller but still significant.
The "I care about you" strategy explains some of the otherwise curious omissions in Edwards' "Two Americas" speech. Edwards says nothing, for example, about what is surely one of the most pressing issues facing America today, which is whether the war in Iraq will end in success or failure. He also says nothing about his record in the Senate. If Edwards thinks anything he has done in government has qualified him to be president, he doesn't say so.
In the place of such details, Edwards tells audiences he believes in them.
Now, clearly that isn't enough to win the Democratic nomination. So far, Edwards has lost all but one of the Democratic primaries and caucuses, including three of four southern primaries. His campaign is dead, and he's still acting as if he's got John Kerry right where he wants him.
But Edwards' "I care" appeal is the real secret of his value as a possible running mate for the presumptive nominee Kerry. Of course Edwards would give the ticket some regional balance. But the most important thing he would give Kerry is emotional balance.
Kerry could tell you until he is blue in the face that he cares about you, and you'd still find it hard to believe him. Do a Nexis database search for "John Kerry" and "aloof" and you'll get hundreds of hits.
That's where Edwards comes in. While Kerry handles the actual issues his stump speech is more detailed, more specific, and more boring than Edwards' Edwards could take care of the audience's emotions. Edwards could tell crowds, in a way that Kerry could not, that "John Kerry believes in you, and you deserve a president who actually believes in YOU!"
Who wouldn't believe that?
Byron York is also a columnist for The Hill, where a version of this first appeared.