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Party Man

What was it that the dying Lenin, in his “last testament” to the comrades, called Bukharin? “The rightful favorite of the whole party,” as I recall (a line that Stalin made sure none of the comrades actually saw for decades thereafter).

That appraisal pretty much sums up John Edwards as well. Indeed, when John Kerry announced on Tuesday morning that he wanted Edwards as his running mate, he was ratifying what was already the party’s informal but overwhelming choice.

And this was something new and strange. Until John Edwards came along, there really wasn’t such a thing in American political history as a vice-presidential groundswell. To be sure, there have been occasional election years when different party elites have battled for particular vice-presidential candidates, but until this year, this was always a game of inside ball. In 1984, a committee of feminists, working behind the scenes, successfully built support among key leaders and organizations for the eventual nomination of Geraldine Ferraro as the Democrats’ vice-presidential pick, but the vast majority of Democrats and feminists had no idea that this was going on until Walter Mondale announced his choice. In 1956, Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson surprised everyone on the next to last day of the convention by ceding to the delegates the task of selecting his running mate. After a 20-hour brouhaha, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver defeated the 38-year-old John Kennedy, but no one had had the capacity or interest to poll the preferences, if any, of the rank-and-filers back home. In 1944, a small group of big-city bosses and businessmen prevailed upon Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic delegates to drop incumbent Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket in favor of Harry Truman. To do so, they bested a group of New Deal operatives who backed Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and a bloc of labor leaders who wanted to keep Wallace. A plurality of rank-and-filers probably preferred Wallace, too, but they had no idea that this battle was even going on until it was all but over.

The selection of John Edwards, by contrast, was something that millions of Democrats devoutly wished for. That’s clear from the polling: A mid-June Associated Press–Ipsos poll of registered Democrats showed Edwards to be the preference of 43 percent, with Dick Gephardt, Wesley Clark and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack trailing with 19, 18 and 4 percent, respectively. The Edwards preference among party activists — for which I have no gauge besides my own discussions over the past three months — was considerably higher than that.

For the same reason that Democratic voters came together to support Kerry for president — his electability — they came together to support Edwards as his running mate. Plainly, Edwards was the yin to Kerry’s yang. Kerry had the biography; Edwards, the charisma. Kerry had the national-security credentials; Edwards, the populist bona fides. Kerry was cool; Edwards was warm. And, to move beyond impressions to voting data, Edwards, while losing to Kerry everywhere but South Carolina, did better than Kerry with rural voters and upscale moderates: two groups Kerry will need to win such swing states as Ohio.

Beyond that, Edwards managed to win swing voters while running on the most compelling presentation of the Democrats’ core values that the party has known in years. There is far less of Bill Clinton’s New Democrat repositioning in Edwards’ “Two Americas” stump speech than there is of plain old New Deal verities. Edwards was the one candidate in the presidential primaries to powerfully describe the plutocratic wave that has eroded the economic security and political power of middle-class America. At his best during the primary season, John Kerry got the words right on this, but only Edwards got the music, too.

Can Kerry and Edwards make beautiful music together? On policy, their differences aren’t as great as some have made out. Prompted by the decimation of American manufacturing, longtime free-trader Kerry has been moving toward Edwards’ more balanced perspective for a couple of years now; both now favor a greater emphasis on environmental and labor standards in all subsequent trade agreements. The two are already in accord on most matters economic, and there’s no real distance — alas — between Edwards’ stance on Iraq and Kerry’s. Vice-presidential candidates don’t dictate policy, of course, and Edwards’ virtue is that he can articulate some of Kerry’s best positions, particularly on economic justice, far better than Kerry himself.

But why — and perhaps more important, how — the groundswell? It is, I suppose, of a piece with the other signs of anti-Bush zealotry that have already made this an extraordinary political year. It goes along with the incredible sums of money that John Kerry has raised from people who’ve never given to campaigns before, with the outpouring of volunteer support for Democratic ground campaigns in swing states, with the box-office success of Fahrenheit 9/11. The same Democrats who are determined to see John Kerry defeat George W. Bush have been determined that he run with the most electable running mate. And on any number of blogs and call-in shows, not to mention in meetings of Democratic groups, they’ve been eminently audible on Edwards’ behalf. No point in leaving this call to Kerry and the traditional Democratic elites; they might just screw it up.

Dick Gephardt’s base was precisely those elites, but they were more divided than was commonly reported. Though most congressional Democrats both liked and admired Gephardt, many of them would in private acknowledge that Edwards was the stronger candidate — and their choice, should Kerry ask them. The leaders of most industrial unions, and the Teamsters’ Jim Hoffa (Gephardt’s law-school classmate), backed Gephardt, but other unions, including the Service Employees and the apparel union UNITE, made their support for Edwards very clear.

In the end, had Kerry chosen anyone but Edwards, he would have disappointed both the party’s elite and its base — and he knew it. Not that Kerry would necessarily have chosen anyone else if left to his own devices, but by the time he announced he’d chosen Edwards, the party had already weighed in.