Feb 1 2008

Taking Offense at Edwards

Media can't forgive his anti-establishment rhetoric

John Edwards--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Llima

John Edwards–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Llima

By the time the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries passed in early January, there had been several distinct cycles in the media coverage of the fight for the Democratic nomination. Hillary Clinton went from inevitable nominee to also-ran to comeback kid in the space of a week, for example, while Barack Obama was transformed from hopeful newcomer to sure-thing front-runner in one evening.

One media trend remained remarkably steady, though: the press corps’ hostility to the John Edwards campaign.

Edwards’ anti-corporate rhetoric was clearly off-putting to many pundits and reporters, who were shocked that the sunny optimist they covered in 2004 transformed into a serious critic of money-driven politics who talked passionately about poverty. Rather than engage his arguments about corporate control over the political system, the media caricatured Edwards for having a large house, a brief stint working for a hedge fund, and his expensive haircuts (the “three Hs,” as they would become known in the mainstream press–see Extra!, 11=12/07).

Edwards’ establishment-challenging rhetoric on economics and trade policy would be easier for the media to denounce if the public didn’t seemingly agree with him (at least insofar as it expresses itself through opinion polls). So the press has generally either scorned Edwards as a phony or dismissed him as irrelevant.

Reporters could do the latter very easily–simply by giving Edwards less coverage than his better-funded rivals. On December 18, USA Today ran a story on candidates’ electability that essentially wrote Edwards out of the race. The piece opened with the statement that “Illinois Sen. Barack Obama fares better than New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton against prospective Republican rivals,” and went on to report on the results of hypothetical match-ups with various Republican candidates.

Excluding Edwards was a strange decision, since on the very issue the poll was measuring Edwards generally does better than Clinton or Obama. In a CNN survey of December 6=9, Edwards beat Romney by 11 points more than Clinton and 9 points more than Obama. He beat Huckabee by 15 points more than Clinton and 10 points more than Obama. Clinton lost to McCain in this polling by 2 points while Obama and McCain were tied, but Edwards beat him by 6. If it’s true, as USA Today‘s article reported, that “Democratic voters increasingly are focused on nominating the most electable presidential candidate,” then the paper did those voters a real disservice by leaving Edwards out of the equation.

Edwards’ second-place finish in Iowa* did little to change the media message–namely, that he should just quit. As New York Times columnist David Brooks (New York Times, 1/4/08) boldly pronounced, “Edwards’ political career is probably over.” David Gergen agreed (CNN, 1/3/08): “John Edwards I think has nowhere to go now…even with a second-place win, because he has no money.”

The New York Times‘ Adam Nagourney (1/5/08) argued that “the results in Iowa…suggested that the Democratic and Republican contests were to a considerable extent two-way races: Mrs. Clinton and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois for the Democrats, and Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney for the Republicans.” How Edwards coming in second in his race and Mike Huckabee winning his “suggested” that their candidacies should be dismissed, Nagourney didn’t explain. The Los Angeles Times (1/10/08), meanwhile, managed to label Edwards as the third-place finisher in Iowa in two articles on the same day.

A few days earlier, USA Today (1/7/08) included this peculiar line:

The Democratic contest is a two-person race, dominated by Clinton and Obama. That leaves Edwards, a former North Carolina senator who is a close third, and Richardson, New Mexico’s governor who is a distant fourth, waiting for a stumble or a political earthquake to create an opening for them.

How a “two-person race” can have a “close third” is entirely unclear.

In an interview with Edwards, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann (1/4/08) expressed bewilderment:

I didn’t understand the conventional wisdom last night…. If you finish second in Iowa with more support from the previous national front-runner, who dropped from first to third, many of the pundits, many of the so-called experts, are describing you as being in trouble, rather than Senator Clinton. Do you know why that is?

If you’ve been following the campaign closely, though, the media’s antipathy towards Edwards is nothing new. Washington Post reporter Dan Balz turned in a scathing assessment of the Edwards campaign on January 12, labeling the candidate a “forgotten man” in “a largely two-person race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton,” before noting that “Edwards has offended many Democrats with his candidacy. They question his authenticity and see his shift from optimism to anger as the sign of an opportunistic politician.”

Perhaps Balz mistyped the sentence; it would be more accurate to say that reporters and pundits are the ones most “offended” by Edwards’ stubborn insistence on running for president.

*In terms of votes; Hillary Clinton actually edged out Edwards for second in terms of delegates, though media rarely use that more practical measure when reporting “winners.”