And Then There Were Two

What lessons should John Kerry draw from his surprisingly close victory over John Edwards in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary? Move further left on trade? Lose more adverbs? Lose some hair?

Things would be simpler were there a clear proletarian story line coming out of Wisconsin: John Edwards, a dedicated proponent of fair trade and the son of a mill worker, has a stronger hold on working-class voters than John Kerry, a lifelong champion of free trade and the heir to a long-ago whaling fortune and husband of a present-day ketchup and pickle princess. Problem is, that’s not the story. It gets the candidates’ lineage right, but their positions on trade are closer than Edwards lets on, and when it comes to the working class — well, once again, the working class has failed to embrace its revolutionary mission.

In fact, Kerry clobbered Edwards, and Howard Dean, among Wisconsin’s working-class voters. Among voters with annual family incomes between $30,000 and $50,000, Kerry beat Edwards by 37 percent to 32 percent; among voters with family incomes between $15,000 and $30,000, by 46 percent to 33 percent; among voters with family incomes beneath $15,000, by a whopping 50 percent to 22 percent. Conversely, among voters with family incomes between $75,000 and $100,000, Edwards beat Kerry by 41 to 34 percent, and among voters with family incomes in excess of $100,000, the two were tied at 38 percent apiece.

The same picture emerges through the slightly different prism of education. Voters without college degrees preferred Kerry over Edwards by a 44 percent to 35 percent margin, while Edwards led among college grads, 35 percent to 33 percent. And the picture is even more dramatic when voters are broken down by their views of the economy. The 17 percent of Wisconsin primary voters who judged the economy to be excellent or good favored Edwards over Kerry, 39 percent to 27 percent. The 79 percent who felt it was not so good or poor went 45 percent Kerry, 29 percent Edwards.

Apparently, Edwards’ humble origins and his purported greater opposition to trade deals weren’t much help among those blue-collar voters who’ve been losing their jobs to outsourcing and who know all about the downscale life. To the contrary, the reason he put a scare into the Kerry campaign is that the Wisconsin election law allows independents and even Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary, and among the 30 percent of Tuesday’s voters who were independents and 9 percent who were Republicans, Edwards cleaned up.

Moreover, the line that Edwards draws between his position on trade and Kerry’s is fuzzier than he depicts it. Edwards quite rightly criticizes Kerry for voting for NAFTA when it came before the Senate a decade ago — at which time Edwards was a trial lawyer not in public life. Kerry hasn’t reversed his position on trade since then, but he’s moved it somewhat. In the fight over restoring the president’s fast-track authority in the spring of 2002, Kerry authored an amendment that reasserted the primacy of U.S. laws and regulations over trade accords, such as NAFTA, that threaten to sweep them away. The flaw with NAFTA, he now allows, is that it subordinates labor and environmental standards and worker rights to side-agreements that are unenforceable, and he pledges to move such stipulations into the main body of any future accords.

That’s the identical position that Edwards espouses. In fact, in the one term that Edwards has served in the Senate, he’s voted with Kerry on a number of trade issues. Unfortunately, both supported granting China unconditional membership in the WTO back in 2000 — a vote that’s forced developing nations to slash their wages in order to compete with China’s gulag economy.

Whether Edwards mistakenly believes that he has traction with blue-collar workers, or just with more culturally conservative voters, it’s clear that he’s going to place a lot of emphasis on Ohio in the “Super-Tuesday” March 2 primaries. Given the modest size of his campaign war chest, and the fact that he needs to win some states besides Georgia on Super Tuesday, Ohio looks like his best bet. Among the eight other Super Tuesday states, California and New York cost a king’s ransom to campaign in, while the four New England states and Maryland look like Kerry Country, particularly if Dean drops out of the race.

Kerry understands that Edwards is gunning for Ohio; he planned to campaign in Ohio on Wednesday, on themes of fair trade and jobs that he is plainly unwilling to cede to Edwards. If Kerry wins Ohio and the coastal states on March 2, the race will truly be over. Even if Edwards picks up Georgia and Ohio, though, that will hardly be enough to make it a competitive race. And it’s by no means clear that the supporters of Howard Dean, should he drop from the race, will end up in Edwards’ column.

Dean was sounding decidedly valedictory on Tuesday night, at times, perhaps, unintentionally. He thanked the Service Employees International Union and the Painters for sticking with him to the end. Since it had been publicly announced that the SEIU would convene Wednesday morning to reassess its position on the campaign, and that the AFL-CIO would deliver all such unions into Kerry’s embrace the following day in Washington, Dean seemed to be saying that he knew the end was at hand.

He did so in a more conscious and graceful way, too, by telling his young backers that they had already won a war even if they’d lost the battle of his campaign. All the Democrats, Dean noted, now spoke against the war and the administration and the president with the same vehemence that he alone brought to the fray just six months ago. It’s still not clear if Dean had roused the base or the base had roused Dean: When he started running in early 2002, he was not yet campaigning against the failure of the Democratic leadership to take on Bush. But Dean visited Iowa 18 times in 2002 alone. Before any other national Democrat, he heard the eruptions of rage at the Democrats’ support for the war resolution and their fecklessness in the mid-term elections. He was a good enough pol to channel that rage and make it his, and, with his base, make it so potent a force that all the Democrats have been compelled to embrace it. He will not make it to the White House, but he changed the Zeitgeist of his party very much for the better, which is no small achievement for any candidate, movement or campaign.

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