John Edwards ran a campaign of integrity and ideas, which he and his supporters can be very proud of. He spoke for a tradition of populist progressivism, which long has had too few advocates. He spoke of a need to change America, to change America’s priorities. But now that he has bowed to the inevitable fact that the Democratic Presidential candidate will be Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, the question becomes, “Can John Edwards pass the test of leadership?” Can he provide direction to the 15% of Democrats who supported him in the primaries? Can he use this moment in time, this opportunity, to advance the causes he believes in? Can he support the candidate who more closely represents his ideals, or will he be cautious, unwilling to choose, unwilling to lead?
There can be no doubt that ideologically John Edwards stands closer to Barack Obama than to Hillary Clinton. This was evident in the Democratic Presidential debates. Despite the successes of Edwards and Obama in life and politics, both are true political outsiders—mavericks in a sea of conventional wisdom. Indeed, the Clintons not only represent the status quo, they embody one of the Americas John Edwards so eloquently described—the well-connected, powerful, prosperous America which is doing well, which has benefited by globalization, which has secure jobs. This is the America the Clintons courted and pandered to during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and which they continue to represent. This is the America of special interests, which is as comfortable with the Clintons as with Republicans. But it is not the other America that John Edwards spoke so passionately about.
Certainly, there must be the temptation for Edwards to step back and let the two remaining combatants battle it out. This path offers Edwards the easy option of hedging his bets, perhaps in the hope that he will retain credibility with the ultimate winner and be able to advance his issues, and, dare I say it, his own interests after the election. On examination, however, this path offers Edwards nothing at all. Let’s assume—and I think it is a fair assumption—that, for the reasons stated above, there is no chance Edwards would endorse Clinton and that the choice he faces is endorsing no one or endorsing Obama. If he stands mute and Clinton wins, she will owe him nothing and she will not even be interested in his concerns; the best he will get is a courtesy lunch or a sub-Cabinet position in a non-critical department. On the other hand, if he fails to help Obama now, when help is most important, the leverage he will have with a victorious Obama would be much diminished than what it is now—such is the essence of politics, a brutal blood sport. On the other hand, should Edwards see the wisdom of endorsing Obama now, his leverage would be greater than it will ever be and he can deal for commitments to support his poverty agenda, and perhaps even for an important position in an Obama Administration. Surely I am not the first to think of John Edwards as Attorney General and if Obama were to make such a commitment, it would be no sell-out of values because John Edwards not only is eminently qualified to be AG, he may well be the most qualified Democratic attorney in America to be AG in a Democratic Administration.
I supported John Edwards in the 2004 Democratic primaries and donated to his campaign this time around. I have watched him grow in stature as a politician since the day in June 2003 when he appeared at an event at my house to explain to me and 75 other Democrats who he was and what he stood for. He ran a great campaign in 2004 and he ran a better one this time, but it was just not to be. But having come as far as he has come, he is not done. He owes it to his supporters, to progressive Democrats, to all Democrats, and to all the voiceless people he speaks for to provide leadership and direction about what direction this country should go and who should lead them as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. Silence, or none of the above, should not be an option.