John Edwards used to be such a nice guy. In 2004, when he was trying for the Democratic presidential nomination, he was all sunny optimism and smiles, trying to use his poster-boy looks and his up-from-humble-beginnings personal narrative to woo voters in early primary states. He even shunned attack politics, attempting to prove that a positive outlook could be enough to win the White House.
It wasn't enough. Edwards did do surprisingly well in the Iowa caucuses in 2004, finishing second, but he couldn't get enough traction from that strong showing and soon afterward flamed out in the New Hampshire primary. Now, in 2007, Edwards is back in Iowa, again trying for the Democratic nomination, and this time he's angry.
In Creston, Iowa, in late July, Edwards delivered a rant about unspecified media power brokers who "want to shut me up," and then released a YouTube video of the rant to a prominent liberal blog. At two recent Democratic debates, one sponsored by YouTube and CNN in July, and another at the YearlyKos convention in Chicago earlier this month, Edwards was noticeably more confrontational than the rest of the Democratic field, attacking front-runner Hillary Clinton for her Iraq positions and her willingness to accept donations from D.C. lobbyists and promising to personally do battle with big insurance companies and big oil if elected. The sunny optimist is gone. Edwards is now a scrappy populist.
Why the shift? Elizabeth Edwards may have delivered the most honest answer during a recent interview, in which she discussed her husband's increasing focus on getting his message out over the internet rather than through more traditional channels. "In some ways, it's the way we have to go," Elizabeth Edwards said, speaking about the Edwards campaign's new internet focus to a business magazine. "We can't make John black, we can't make him a woman. Those things get you a lot of press, worth a certain amount of fundraising dollars. Now it's nice to get on the news, but not the be-all and end-all."
The internet, many political strategists have decided, is a highly emotional medium—more like right-wing talk radio than a civil space for nuanced political discussions that its early boosters claimed it could become. These strategists see the corner of the internet populated by Democratic activists, the liberal blogosphere, as proving this theory. Online liberals have been cool to moderate, relentlessly even-keeled candidates, but they are extremely responsive to outraged Democrats who talk about their willingness to fight—witness the online success of Howard Dean in 2004 and, more recently, the huge response that tough-guy Virginia Democrat Jim Webb earned from the liberal blogosphere during his successful senate run in 2006.
Edwards, in deciding that the internet is his best avenue for getting his messages out this time around, has concluded that fiery is the best tone for this new medium, and has adapted accordingly.
The danger, of course, is that Edwards's personality shift will simply reconfirm what detractors have said all along: that he lacks conviction. Recent slips haven't helped in this regard. Edwards, in keeping with his new confrontational tone, has been bashing conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch on the campaign trail, saying: "The time has come for Democrats to stop pretending to be friends with the very people who demonize the Democratic Party." But Edwards's recent book, Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives, was published by Murdoch-controlled HarperCollins. Edwards received a $500,000 advance for the book, which he said he gave to charity, but as the Politico recently reported, some of Edwards's $300,000 expense budget went to his daughter and one of his senior political aides.
In addition, though Edwards has made a big deal of his pledge not to take any money from D.C. lobbyists, he is taking money from Wall Street power brokers (arguably as influential as D.C. lobbyists in shaping government policy), and he recently worked as a consultant for a big Wall Street hedge fund (not exactly a populist post). During his tenure there, the fund increased its investments in subprime mortgages, a much-criticized type of credit that is seen as preying on poor people. (Edwards, who has received nearly $170,000 in donations from the fund's employees, told the Washington Post in May that he wasn't aware of the fund's expansion of its subprime mortgage investments.)
Are Democratic voters even following Edwards's shift in tone, and its ensuing charges of opportunism and hypocrisy? It's not clear, but a recent poll in Iowa offered a hint that however it's being processed by voters, the new Edwards tone may not be delivering its intended results. The poll, released in early August, showed Edwards losing his much-hyped lead in Iowa, dropping by eight points and now statistically tied for first place with the candidate who has often been the subject of his new, ratcheted-up rhetoric: Hillary Clinton.