Escape From Iowa

Illustration by Darrow

On a chill mid-November afternoon in New Hampshire, John Edwards unfurls his populist pitch at Plymouth State University, inveighing against the corruption in Washington, railing at “the powerful interests that have taken over our government.” Edwards, of course, has been hammering at these enemies all year, though rarely has he named any names apart from the predictable ones: Bush and Cheney, Halliburton and Blackwater. But now Edwards has added a new target to his list. In under an hour at Plymouth State, he attacks Hillary Clinton for her position on Iraq; for her coziness with lobbyists; for the cash she has raked in from the insurance, drug, and defense industries. Mentioning her vote to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, he turns Clinton’s new campaign slogan against her: “Somebody will have to explain to me how you ‘turn up the heat’ on the Republicans by voting with Bush and Cheney and the neocons on the path to war in Iran.”

When Edwards is done, I walk outside and head for the parking lot, where I come upon the rumpled figure of Joe Trippi—the brilliant, combative, controversial guru behind Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004 and now Edwards’s chief strategist—bellowing into his cell phone. “Look, dude, everyone has gotta understand, this is what we have to do,” Trippi is saying. “It’s like we’re in a burning building and there are two fire exits. We gotta pick one and head through that door as hard as we can.”

To more than a few observers, Trippi’s metaphor will seem all too apt. The perception among some in political circles and many in the press is that Edwards’s campaign is perilously close to going up in flames. That he’s slipping in Iowa, his must-win state, and gaining traction nowhere else. That his decision to go sharply negative on Clinton is an act of desperation. This perception is being fueled, not surprisingly, by his rivals. Last week, when Edwards pointedly refused to say he would endorse Clinton if she wins the nomination, Chris Dodd issued a tut-tutting statement suggesting that Edwards has lost his bearings: “I am surprised at just how angry John has become. This is not the same John Edwards I once knew.”

The Edwards that Dodd knew was the sunny moderate from their days in the Senate together. But the Edwards of 2007 is a very different cat. Whether his emergence as a full-throated neopopulist is a result of political expediency (the realization that the only way to take on Clinton was from her left) or a return to his roots as a trial lawyer is an open question. Either way, for months there has been debate in Edwards Land about just how aggressively confrontational the candidate should be. On one side has been Trippi, arguing in favor of pumping up the volume; on the other, Edwards’s longtime pollster and guardian of his Q rating, Harrison Hickman. What’s clear, however, is that Edwards is deeply comfortable with this new-old persona, which is why the campaign is piling through the fire exit Trippi favors.

Equally clear is that Edwards’s anti-Clinton tack is neither desperate nor impetuous. All along, there has never been much doubt that the time for serrated-edge contrast would come this fall. Or that Clinton would be the Democrat who would feel the blade. Everything that is happening now is part of a thoroughly calculated plan, long in gestation.

The odds against that plan’s working remain high, to be sure, though perhaps not as high as many assume. An Edwards win in Iowa strikes me, as it has all along, as eminently possible—and if it happens, not only will the race be thrown into complete and utter turmoil, but the Democratic Party will confront a momentous question. Is it really ready to cast its lot with a candidate who has fashioned himself more after Huey Long than after the sainted Bill Clinton?

A few hours after the Plymouth State event, I find myself riding with Edwards in his rented white minivan on the road to Hanover for a forum at Dartmouth. In his talk earlier, Edwards had walked right up to the edge of calling Clinton corrupt, so I ask him bluntly if he thinks that she is. “I don’t believe that,” he replies. “But she’s part of a system where corporate Democrats and corporate Republicans have too much control. That’s a fair way of saying it. And as long as you say taking lobbyists’ money, working with the lobbyists, working with the big corporate interests is the way to get big change, I think that means you’re defending and participating in a corrupt and broken system.”

Edwards goes on to enumerate the many “differences I have with Senator Clinton on a whole range of issues.” But when I ask about Barack Obama, Edwards not only speaks warmly of how they are substantively simpatico, he prefaces his comments about their stylistic divergences—Obama’s tendency toward conciliation, Edwards’s toward confrontation—with the emphatic phrase, “Now, I’m not criticizing him.”

On first inspection, the strategy of going after Clinton while giving Obama a pass might seem odd: After all, Edwards and Obama are competing for the non-Hillary vote in Iowa. But the Edwards approach has its logic. Roughly 120,000 voters participated in the caucuses in 2004, and the savviest operatives in all three campaigns assume that something like half of likely caucusgoers are still undecided. (That public polls put the percentage at between 10 and 15 percent is dismissed as yet another sign of those polls’ notorious unreliability when it comes to Iowa.) For the Edwards campaign, the first crucial task in the next month and a half is to raise the stakes of the election in the eyes of those 60,000 undecided voters, to convince them that fundamental change is necessary, that not just any Democrat will do in 2008. Because if any Democrat will do, Clinton—the safe choice, the known commodity—likely wins.

In the drive to raise the stakes thus, the Obama campaign serves a useful purpose, for its message of root-and-branch transformation of Washington echoes that of Edwards. It’s also the case that Obama and Edwards’s demographic bases (upscale for the former, downscale for the latter) don’t overlap as much as Edwards’s and Clinton’s do, so Edwards and Obama can both grow their ranks of supporters without cannibalizing each other’s. And that, if Edwards and Clinton later wind up in a one-on-one race, the Edwards people hope to pick up Obama’s fans, particularly the young ones—hence an imperative to tread lightly on the Illinois senator.

So the Edwards and Obama camps are de facto allies in the cause of toppling Clinton? Certainly, in the weeks following Clinton’s wretched debate performance at the end of October in Philadelphia, the two sides seemed not just to be crooning from the same songbook, but doing so in perfect-pitch a cappella harmony. In the blogosphere, where some Edwards boosters saw the putative alliance as a suicide pact for their man, theories even sprouted that Trippi—who angled for a job with Obama before signing on with Edwards and is a friend of Obama’s backroom Svengali, David Axelrod—was an Obama mole within the House of Edwards.

In fact, the Obama campaign has never seen the situation the way the Edwards people do. If there was any doubt that this was true, it was removed last week, when David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, unleashed a strategy memo that strafed Edwards almost as severely as it did Clinton. “On many core issues the Edwards of today is different than the Edwards of 1998, or even 2004,” Plouffe wrote. “It’s admirable to admit mistakes but John Edwards has apologized for most of his record while in the Senate, saying he got it wrong on trade with China, Right to Work, Packer Ban, No Child Left Behind, Bankruptcy reform and of course, the Iraq War.” And for good measure, Plouffe added, “Senator Edwards does not show an inclination toward unity, suggesting compromise is a dirty word.”

The objectives of Obama’s team are straightforward: to make Iowa (and the rest of the contest) a two-person race between their guy and Hillary. In Plouffe’s telling, Edwards is fading fast in Iowa. And a key Obama supporter there, the former state party chairman Gordon Fischer, gave an interview last week disparaging the turnout of Edwards supporters at the big-deal Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on November 10, arguing that Obama was well poised to pick up Edwards’s voters, whom he described as “up for grabs.”

Methinks they doth protest too much. Indeed, the fact that Plouffe and Fischer are posturing this way suggests that the Obama forces continue to fear the prospect of being trumped by Edwards in Iowa. And with good reason. So far Obama has spent some $5 million on advertising in the state, and Clinton’s total is more than $3 million, whereas as of two weeks ago, Edwards had spent just $20,000. And yet the race remains a statistical three-way dead heat.

More to the point, because of the bizarro nature of the caucuses—the participants must go out, on a frigid night, for a multi-hour ordeal of public declarations of support and multiple rounds of voting—the contest in Iowa is a slog-it-out ground war, in which organization and get-out-the-vote efforts are paramount. And here all sides concede privately that Edwards’s team, which has been in place essentially for five years, is the class of the field. When I ask Edwards if he’s concerned about signs of slippage in Iowa, he literally laughs in my face. “We have 99 county chairs and about 75 percent of the precincts covered with precinct chairs,” he says. “I know how to run a caucus campaign in Iowa—and so do the people who work for me.”

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.


Escape From Iowa