The wisdom of picking John Edwards.

Politics and policy.
July 6 2004 12:29 PM

The Big Decision

The wisdom of picking Edwards.

Kerry's best salesman
Kerry's best salesman

Think about this for a minute: He left college, and he volunteered three different ways. First he volunteered for military service. Then he volunteered to serve in Vietnam. And then he volunteered for some of the most dangerous, hazardous duty you could possibly have in Vietnam. As a result, he was wounded multiple times. He won a whole series of medals while he was there. And now—this is an amazing thing—a vice president of the United States who avoided service four, five, six times—I've lost count—[and] a president of the United States who can't account for a year of his national guard service are attacking John Kerry for the medals he won in Vietnam? You have got to be kidding me.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

That's John Edwards talking about John Kerry at a Florida Democratic Party fund-raiser three weeks ago. This is why Kerry had to pick Edwards: Kerry sounds so much more attractive when Edwards is doing the talking.

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Five months ago, after watching Kerry strut his stuff in New Hampshire—such as it was—I warned that Democrats were on the verge of nominating a guy who had plenty of selling points but couldn't make the sale himself. How was this mediocre campaigner attracting voters? The answer, it turned out, was that he wasn't attracting them. It was Kerry's sales force—Ted Kennedy, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, Iowa's first lady Christie Vilsack, and others—that was doing this job so well. The problem with this arrangement, I thought, was that the candidate would eventually have to stand and fight alone. "If you nominate Kerry, you don't get the sales force," I wrote. "You just get him."

Who was the better candidate? Edwards. That's how I saw it, and plenty of exit polls backed me up. Liberals were voting for Kerry because they thought he was electable. But the people whose ballots would actually determine which candidate got elected—independents, conservative Democrats, and self-identified Republicans sufficiently open-minded to participate in Democratic primaries—were voting for Edwards.

My wife saw it differently. She looked at Kerry and saw a guy loaded with national security credentials. She looked at Edwards and saw a baby-faced lawyer with little governing experience who seemed unprepared for the presidency in a time of war. Kerry saw the same thing. "In the Senate four years, and that is the full extent of public life—no international experience, no military experience," Kerry said of Edwards. Lots of voters also recognized a difference. According to exit polls, people who looked for the candidate with the "right experience" for the presidency voted overwhelmingly for Kerry.

So this was the dilemma: Edwards was the best salesman, but Kerry was the best product. If you had to choose one or the other, I thought it was more important to pick the salesman, since the consequences of losing the election were far more serious than the consequences of electing the less qualified Democrat. The logic made sense, but the premise was mistaken. Democrats didn't have to choose. They could get the best product along with the best salesman, if Kerry had the wisdom to pick Edwards.

By wisdom, I don't mean short-term calculation or even long-term prudence. While Edwards offered the most obvious electoral boost, Kerry's associates made clear that the nominee was looking beyond the election for the running mate who would be most ready to step in as president. That train of thought led to Dick Gephardt, not to Edwards. Personal chemistry pointed in the same direction: By all accounts, Kerry feels far more comfortable with Gephardt than with Edwards. I think Kerry is uneasy around Edwards because Edwards reminds him of the young Kerry, and the old Kerry knows that the young Kerry was a showboating upstart. Gephardt was the guy Kerry wanted.

That's where wisdom had to intervene. Kerry had to recognize that the decision wasn't strictly his to make. Look again at those exit polls. Most Democrats who voted for Kerry weren't in love with him. They saw him as a vehicle to get rid of Bush. Some initially preferred the candidate who vowed to stand up to Bush, or the candidate who preached optimism, or the candidate who accused Republicans of a war against working people, or the candidate who promised to take back our government from the special interests. Kerry absorbed all the votes by absorbing all the messages. He became the optimistic guy who would stand up against Bush's war on work and fight the special interests. More clearly than any Democratic presidential nominee in 20 years, Kerry was chosen not to represent himself but to represent his party. And what Democrats wanted, as polls and crowds made clear, was Edwards—because they like him, and because they want to win.

That's the most important thing Kerry revealed today: He understands that the election is about more than what he wants. Sometimes the biggest thing you can do is to accept what's bigger than you.