Man Without Qualities

Thursday, July 08, 2004

A Johns' Tale: Return To The Inscrutable Occident

Fresh off the boat (or, in this case, the jetliner) from China, the Man Without Qualities gazes with fresh amazement at American political scene. Here is John Kerry selecting John Edwards as his running mate: A man who for decades masqueraded as an Irish-American selecting a man who has for decades masqueraded as the "son of a mill worker" - but who can actually remember his father only as a mid-level textile company supervisor. The Boston Globe reported last year: "By Johnny's third birthday the family had moved five times across the Carolinas, and up the economic ladder as well. Wallace Edwards spent most of his career with Milliken & Co., which owned a string of textile mills, and he received promotions from floor worker to 'time study' jobs - monitoring worker productivity - to supervisor. Over time, the family went from living in a public housing project to a ranch-style brick home on a tree-lined street." So "Johnny" was the son of a mill worker in only a misleading, attenuated, technical sense - the kind of sense which a fancy trial lawyer makes his stock in trade. Did "Johnny" lie to his public? Or did this Senator merely lay out the misleading facts and let the public misdirect itself - just as John Kerry allowed his public to misdirect itself as to that Senator's ethnicity? They have so much in common!

The Globe article also points out that "Johnny" has repeatedly asserted that his father, Wallace Edwards, was "blocked" in his efforts to advance economically by his lack of a college degree. Education certainly helps one advance in life, but others - such as billionaires Kirk Kerkorian and Jack Kent Cooke, just by way of example - didn't find their lack of a college degree to be an insurmountable obstacle to their advancement. Lack of a college degree was not all that uncommon in North and South Carolina fifty or more years ago, and it would be interesting to know how many Milliken & Co. employees senior to Wallace Edwards (and more-senior Carolina textile company officers generally) did not brandish that particular credential. My guess is that quite a few bright ambitious Carolina men without college degrees did quite well in the then-growing textile business - quite a bit better than the fairly comfortable middle-level supervisor position held by Wallace Edwards during much of the part of his childhood "Johnny" can actually remember.

In public "Johnny" cultivates and emphasizes his resentments against large classes of people and institutions. Listening to the Senator speak that way, I do not find it hard to imagine Wallace Edwards cultivating and emphasizing - in conversations with his son and in his own mind - his own resentment of whatever obstacles he had confronted. Many fathers do.

But how much of the rest of this Edwards "Fathers and Sons" tale is as attenuated and overstated as Senator Edwards' "son of a mill worker" drollery?

Despite the media's easy, recurring infatuation with John Edwards, by many important measures he is clearly a weak choice. He is a man who won exactly one primary - in the state of his birth. He was failing in the polls in North Carolina when he decided not to run for re-election. His "two America's" stump speech was cast in a polarizing tone generally viewed as appropriate at most for primaries, and not for the "tack back to the center" needed to win the general election and contained a much-criticised and embarrassing belaboring of that ficticious little girl "somewhere in America" who "will go to bed hungry, hoping and praying that tomorrow will not be as cold as today, because she doesn't have the coat to keep her warm." John Edwards' tendency to embellish fact makes Al Gore's truth-extensions that many commenters believe hurt so much in 2000 seem benign in comparision. Then there's his lack of "gravitas" and his nearly Hillary-esque ability as a trial lawyer to incite the Republican base to open their wallets and storm the polls (although the Man Without Qualities views any Republican thought that the November election can be moved significantly by appealing to a putative general public hostility to plaintiff lawyers as mostly an indication that too many Republicans have lost touch by spending too much time surrounded only by people who hate plaintiff's lawyers). And, of course, the John-John ticket has so far not materially advanced the Democrats in the polls. [UPDATE AND CONFIRMATION: From Ellisblog.][FURTHER CONFIRMATION: Little or no Edwards "bounce."

Why did Senator Kerry do it? The New York Times reports in the always dubious form of Adam Nagourney:

Senator John Kerry's political advisers plan to dispatch his new running mate, Senator John Edwards, to rural areas in critical states across the Midwest and the West, in the belief that Mr. Edwards could be an unusually powerful advocate for the ticket in regions viewed as President Bush's stronghold.

Mr. Nagourney thinks it makes perfect sense that to capture "critical states across the Midwest and the West" Senator Kerry ditched uber-midwesterner Dick Gephardt of Missouri and every Western Democrat in favor of a washed-up North Carolina lightweight. Sure.

There is one respect in which the selection of John Edwards is very good news for Democrats: John Edwards' utter irrelevance to all aspects of foreign affairs demonstrates that the highest reaches of the Democratic Party understand fully that this election - like almost all American presidential elections - will turn overwhelmingly on the domestic economic situation, and not on foreign affairs - including Iraq and especially including any Iraq prisoner-abuse scandal or stories derived therefrom. Senator Edwards' selection demonstrates that John Kerry and the higher reaches of the Democratic Party are, in this respect, vastly more sophisticated than is the bulk of the mainstream media (left and right).

The argument that the election will be driven by foreign affairs generally concedes that the domestic economic situation may constitute most of what determines the voters' choice, but the economic situation is what it is and is fairly good but not perfect - so Democrats will just have to accept it, not talk too much about it and hope that things in Iraq get bad enough so that foreign affairs move the election enough to eject Mr. Bush from office. This approach would be a dead loser.

But there is at least one other approach: Since perceptions of the domestic economic situation overwehelmingly determine a presidential vote (say, 80% of the decision, just for illustration), it follows that even a small perturbation in the public perception of the domestic economic situation will have at least as much effect on the election as a much larger change in public perception of foreign affairs.

If one adopted this other approach, it would make perfect sense for the Democrat to choose for a running mate a shallow spin meister focused on domestic matters and with some reputation for expertise in class warfare and cultivating and emphasizing feelings of resentment and victimhood.

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