The John Edwards Endorsement: A Last Chance To Prove He's No Phony

| Tue Feb. 12, 2008 9:28 AM PST

A few weeks ago, I was talking to an influential Hillary Clinton fundraiser. When the subject of John Edwards (still in the race at that time) came up, she started sputtering about his hypocrisy. His expensive hair cut, his big house--the guy's a phony, she exclaimed derisively, and his populist, anti-Washington, help-the-poor rhetoric was all just for show. He won't last.

She was right on that final point. As for his authenticity, that was a question that chased Edwards. During his six years in the U.S. Senate (1999 to 2005), Edwards was no working-class hero. He did not develop a reputation as a firebrand willing to take on the powerbrokers of the nation's capital. At that time, Senator Paul Wellstone was the populist champion in the Senate (until his tragic death in October 2002). Wellstone waged one fight after another against corporate interests, lobbying influence, and the sway of big-money. I don't recall Edwards standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him during all these uphill battles.

Yet on the campaign trail, Edwards became Joe Hill in a suit.

Wellstone once told me that you always have to allow for redemption within politics. And perhaps Edwards' conversion was genuine. Why not give him the benefit of the doubt? His message was powerful and well-delivered--even if not embraced by a plurality of Democratic voters. But if Edwards wants to prove he was truly speaking his heart and mind, he has no choice when it comes to endorsing one of the remaining Democratic contenders. He cannot support Hillary Clinton.

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During the campaign, as he called for ending poverty, Edwards pointed to Clinton as part of the problem. Let's roll the tape on a speech he gave in New Hampshire last summer:

The system in Washington is rigged and our government is broken. It's rigged by greedy corporate powers to protect corporate profits. It's rigged by the very wealthy to ensure they become even wealthier. At the end of the day, it's rigged by all those who benefit from the established order of things....

Politicians who care more about their careers than their constituents go along to get elected. They make easy promises to voters instead of challenging them to take responsibility for our country. And then they compromise even those promises to keep the lobbyists happy and the contributions coming...

It's a game that never ends, but every American knows -- it's time to end the game. And it's time for the Democratic Party -- the party of the people -- to end it. The choice for our party could not be more clear. We cannot replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats, just swapping the Washington insiders of one party for the Washington insiders of the other. The American people deserve to know that their presidency is not for sale, the Lincoln Bedroom is not for rent, and lobbyist money can no longer influence policy in the House or the Senate.

There is no way to read that passage as not a direct assault on Clinton. Edwards was calling her out as a "corporate Democrat" willing to benefit from the crooked politics of Washington. The reference to the renting of the Lincoln Bedroom was a sharp punctuation mark. (During the Bill Clinton presidency, big donors to his campaign were rewarded with overnights in the White House.)

This was not a solo blast. At the debate before the New Hampshire primary, Edwards slammed Clinton for being aligned with "the forces of status quo" dead-set on blocking change in Washington.

Those were some charges. Did Edwards mean what he was saying about Clinton? Did he mean it when he proclaimed that poverty eradication was the cause of his life?

In the past few days, Edwards has met with Clinton, and he's due to see Barack Obama, presumably to figure out if he should endorse either. If Clinton ends up the Democratic nominee, it will not be hypocritical for Edwards to campaign for her. He can reasonably argue she will be a better president than John McCain. But if the choice is Obama or Clinton, he is stuck. Were Edwards to pick her over him, he would be endorsing a "corporate Democrat" fronting for the status quo over the fellow whom he approvingly cited as an advocate for change. If Edwards pulled such a move, all those powerful words he left behind on the campaign trail would have no meaning.

There's been speculation among the politerati about what Edwards might want in return for the few delegates he managed to collect before leaving the race. (He cannot hand them over automatically to any candidate; he can only suggest his delegates follow his lead.) Would he like to be attorney general in a Democratic administration, perhaps as a stepping stone toward the Supreme Court? He could make a good A.G. But if Edwards horse-trades away his principled opposition to Clinton for a job, it will indicate he's nothing but another say-anything/do-anything politician.

The issue is not whether he was right in his criticism of Clinton, but whether he was genuine on the campaign trail. An Edwards endorsement of Obama would not be slam-dunk evidence he's truly become a Wellstonian populist. But an Edwards endorsement of Clinton--though welcomed by the Clinton camp--would prove that Clinton fundraisers' point: he's not for real.

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