LOS ANGELES—John Kerry did something I thought was impossible tonight. He turned himself into John Edwards. This may be the secret of Kerry's success in the Democratic primaries: What Bill Clinton did to infuriate the Republican Congress during his presidency, Kerry does to his fellow candidates. He co-opts their issues, their message, even their language. When Howard Dean was the obstacle in Kerry's path, the Massachusetts senator talked about throwing the special interests out of Washington and putting the people back in charge. Now that Edwards is the lone serious contender, Kerry pitches himself as the positive, optimistic candidate with "real solutions."
"I've offered a positive vision of what we ought to be doing in America," Kerry declared in the opening moments of Thursday's debate. "Once we have a nominee, this country will have an opportunity to hear a positive vision of how we can offer hope to Americans, optimism about the possibilities of the future, not divide America but bring it together to find real solutions. And that's what I'm offering: real solutions." Edwards must have felt like a sitcom character, the candidate for student council president watching his classmate deliver a stolen version of his speech. The "Real Solutions Express" is the name of Edwards' campaign bus. "Real Solutions for America" is the name of Edwards' 60-page policy booklet. It's also the phrase plastered across the top of Edwards' campaign Web site.
But unlike the sitcom character, who takes the podium and falls flat on his face, Edwards dominated the early portion of the debate. He throttled Kerry—with an assist from an aggressive Ron Brownstein—after Kerry couldn't explain why he thought the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional in 1996 but that a constitutional amendment isn't needed now to ensure that states are not forced to recognize gay marriages from other states. After Kerry's long-winded and unsatisfactory answer to whether he would vote for the Defense of Marriage Act today, Edwards jabbed, "I'm not sure what he said about that. But I would not vote for it." Then Edwards deftly moved to Kerry's left on the issue, saying he believes the federal government ought to be required to recognize gay marriages if they are recognized by a state. Edwards also looked strong when he confronted Al Sharpton to defend his support of the death penalty.
Despite the inclusion of Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich, they weren't much of a factor. They sat on the far end of the table away from the TV camera, and they were confined mostly to interjecting asides to the main debate between Kerry and Edwards. They seemed like the political debate version of the two grumpy old men who issue catcalls from the balcony during The Muppet Show.
But despite Edwards' strong start, by the end of the debate a second impossible transformation had occurred. John Edwards turned into John Kerry. Kerry answered a difficult question from Larry King about his opposition to the death penalty—"A person who kills a 5-year-old should live?"—clearly and directly. "Larry, my instinct is to want to strangle that person with my own hands," he said. But the system is flawed, it's applied unjustly, and as a matter of principle, "the state should not engage in killing." That's the best answer you can give to that unpopular position. Edwards, by contrast, sounded like the Kerry of old when he tried to explain why he supports a system that King said "nearly executed over 100 people who didn't do it." He talked about how "serious" the issue was, and how "serious steps" need to be taken, such as "making the court system work." Finally, King bailed him out: But why do you favor capital punishment? Oh yeah, Edwards seemed to think, that's what I should be talking about, and he brought up some liberal red meat: "Those men who dragged James Byrd behind that truck in Texas, they deserve the death penalty."
On another occasion, Brownstein had to repeatedly query Edwards to get him to explain whether there were any substantive differences between him and Kerry on the issue of reforming the way Washington works. "Do you view Sen. Kerry as part of the solution or part of the problem?" Brownstein asked. Edwards dodged the question. "Is there a difference in your commitment to this cause and what you see from Sen. Kerry?" Brownstein tried again. "Yes," Edwards said, because I'm an outsider. But that's not substantive, Brownstein objected. "He is saying many of the same things. Are you saying that he is less committed?" Edwards demurred.
Then Kerry swooped in to damn Edwards with praise. "I don't think there fundamentally is a difference," he said. "I mean, John has raised almost 50 percent of his money from one group of people in the United States"—"Is that the trial lawyers?" King interrupted—"That's correct. And I don't ever suggest that he is beholden to them," Kerry continued magnanimously. "Because I know he stood up on the patients' bill of rights."
The real Kerry returned a few moments later, with a preposterously unclear statement on his first executive order: "Reverse the Mexico City policy on the gag rule so that we take a responsible position globally on family planning." But then Edwards picked up the Kerry torch when Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Janet Clayton asked him how he can criticize the president for a war that he voted for. Edwards tried to appear thoughtful and serious, saying he gave "an awful lot of thought and study to it." Not only that, "I was worried about it. All of us were. I took this responsibility seriously." But why did you vote for it? "What we did is we voted on a resolution," Edwards stammered. And Bush didn't conduct the war properly. "So are you saying you were suckered?" Clayton asked.
King asked Edwards if he regrets his vote for the war. "I did what I believed was right at the time," Edwards said. "Do you regret it?" King asked again. "I did what I believed was right at the time," Edwards repeated. "Do you regret it?" King asked again, this time to laughter. "We don't get to go back, Larry," Edwards insisted. "Well, you can regret something," King said.
Kerry pounced on his chance to play Edwards to Edwards' Kerry. "Let me return a favor from the last debate to John," he said. "You asked a yes-or-no answer: 'Do you regret your vote?' The answer is: No. I do not regret my vote. I regret that we have a president of the United States who misled America and broke every promise he made the United States Congress." Substantively, this is the same answer Edwards gave, but it was clear instead of evasive and concise instead of tortuous.
It couldn't have been clearer: Edwards had become Kerry and Kerry had become Edwards. Kerry's critics will likely see this as more evidence of flip-flopping opportunism. Kerry will likely see it as victory.