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Jewish World Review Feb. 25, 2002 / 13 Adar, 5762

George Will

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The Fresh-Face Factor -- John Edwards, freshman Democratic senator from North Carolina, is thinking of running for president in 2004, which has some of the political cognoscenti wondering, What can he be thinking? Perhaps this: I am from a crucial region, my potential rivals for the nomination are unintimidating, and by January 2004 I will have spent as many years in elective office -- five -- as George W. Bush had spent by January 2000.

Edwards is handsome, almost too much so. His boyish features are remarkably unmarked by life, although his life has been scarred by tragedy -- the death, at age 16, of his son in an automobile accident. His prettiness -- "sexiest politician," says People magazine -- may cause suspicions that he is all surface. But such suspicions can be quickly banished, as Bush has shown. Bush's initial weakness was the suspicion, reinforced by his syntactical fender-benders, that he lacked gravitas. That weakness is, Edwards says, "gone forever."

The election of New Yorker Grover Cleveland in 1884 was the first Democratic presidential victory after the Civil War, and Northeasterners provided seven of the Democrats' next eight victories (all but that of Missouri's Truman in 1948) through 1960 (Cleveland again in 1892, New Jersey's Wilson twice, New York's Roosevelt four times and Massachusetts's Kennedy). However, Democrats have not elected a northeastern president since Edwards was 7 years old -- Kennedy. The only northeasterner they have nominated since 1960 was Massachusetts's Michael Dukakis. Memories of 1988 will not help Massachusetts's Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

Since 1960, Democrats have won just four presidential elections, all with candidates from states of the Confederacy -- Johnson from Texas, Carter from Georgia and Clinton from Arkansas. However, after the Clinton experience, the country may not warm to another southern smoothie. Edwards, a trial lawyer who honed his political skills by connecting with juries (he was one of the first to use focus groups to help with jury selection), is smooth as a Dairy Queen. Coming months will tell if he is more nourishing.

He does understand the importance of Democratic nominees being perceived as sharing some of the South's cultural conservatism. "We can't win elections on cultural issues," he said over lunch recently, "but we sure can lose them on cultural issues." However, Edwards is a lockstep member of the herd of independent minds -- mostly northern liberals -- currently slandering a judicial nominee from Mississippi, Charles Pickering, who offends northern liberals, not Mississippi blacks.

Michael Barone, author of "The Almanac of American Politics," says several developments may nudge Democrats rightward. Blacks, the most loyal Democrats, are no longer a growing fraction of the electorate. Neither are the major metropolitan areas. And the places where such favorite Democratic issues as abortion rights and gun control are salient -- California, New Jersey and most major metropolitan areas -- are already solidly Democratic.

Barone notes that if the allocation of electoral votes among the states in 2000 had been what it will be in 2004 on the basis of the 2000 census, Bush would have won not 271 but 278 electoral votes. Of the seven states, all in the South or West, that have gained electoral votes -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina -- Bush carried all but California.

Furthermore, a poll done for House Democrats suggests that the "halo" surrounding Bush, and the way the war on terrorism has eclipsed issues usually helpful to Democrats (health care, education, Social Security, the environment), pose problems for Democrats in 22 marginal seats crucial to Democratic hopes of recapturing the House. Such districts are generally more conservative than safe Democratic districts. But Edwards could gain from this. If Democrats fail, for a fourth consecutive time, to recapture the House, their frustration might make them more willing to look at a very fresh face in 2004. But his performance concerning Pickering suggests that although his face is fresh, his philosophy is a stale orthodoxy.

Edwards says, with self-mockery, that his is "the great voice of three years of political experience." If nominated in 2004, Edwards, then 51, would be eight years older than Kennedy was when nominated. By then Edwards will be in his sixth year as a senator. Kennedy was in his eighth when nominated. And even considering today's terrorist threats, the world was more dangerous in 1960 than now.

In the two-party competition, the country is tied. And the country has had periods of rapid rotation of the presidency. From 1884 to 1896, the presidency changed parties in four consecutive elections. Edwards seems determined to do what Kennedy did in 1960 -- ignore those who say he is reaching for the brass ring too soon.

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