But Edwards plainly believes he has more going for him than organizational strength. A few months ago, his wife, Elizabeth—who has proved to be a unique campaign asset because she can say virtually anything; by dint of her courageous struggle with cancer, she’s basically bulletproof—observed on the campaign trail that Democratic primary voters customarily are compelled to pick between progressivism and electability. But Edwards, his wife went on, short-circuits that compromise. At the time, the argument struck me as plausible, but far too brash for Edwards himself to make. But when I mention it to him, he embraces it unabashedly, rattling off a litany of reasons why both sides of the equation are true.
Electability has always been a factor in Iowa, most notably (if disastrously, in the end) in the 2004 out-of-nowhere victory of John Kerry. What Edwards and his team will never say, but which on some level they’re counting on, is that his status as the only white male in the top tier will factor pivotally in his favor. More broadly, they believe that electability (and experience) would prove to be decisive factors in a head-to-head race with Obama, which is another reason they are gunning for Clinton now: They believe that, if they can fatally wound her in Iowa, they will have an easier time with Obama further down the road than they would have with Hillary.
The risks in Edwards’s strategy are many, of course. The most obvious is the antipathy toward negative campaigning in Iowa; the possibility that, by whaling on Clinton, they may raise the stakes of the election but send undecided voters scurrying away from Edwards. The candidate, for his part, dismisses this concern. “So long as the distinctions you’re making are about the choices voters have, and it’s not a personal attack, people will accept it,” Edwards says.
Another risk is that Edwards’s team is underestimating Obama, and that in taking the lead in pummeling Clinton, they are creating an opening for the hope-monger to run right up the middle and steal the caucuses from the two more experienced hands. And yet another is that Edwards’s own consistency as a populist will be called into question. There was clearly a hint of that in the Plouffe memo. Expect a great deal more of it—along with renewed talk about pricey haircuts, palatial houses, and hedge-fund rainmaking—if Edwards begins to rise.
To my mind, though, the greatest danger for Edwards isn’t that he’ll be called a phony but that voters will take him at his word. The history of Democratic presidential primaries is littered with the bodies of candidates who adopted a strident populist persona, from Howard Dean to Dick Gephardt to, incredibly, Bob Kerrey. Edwards tells me that the key to pulling off populism is being a happy warrior: not sounding as if “you’re angry at them” but that “you’re fighting on behalf of everyone.” The question, however, is whether voters, at this moment, want a fight at all. Or if, after the furious battles that have raged in our politics the past two decades, what they really want instead is a little peace and quiet.