Thursday, April 5, 2007

John Edwards' Des Moines Town Hall

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 656

When a top-tier presidential candidate holds an event in the gym at the high school four blocks from your house, you are all but required to attend: I'm pretty sure that's Iowa state law. So it was that I stopped by John Edwards' town hall last night in Des Moines.

This was the Iowa campaign event from central casting: high school gym, about 1,000 people in attendance after work on a week night, "vote for me" signs hanging amidst the giant American flag and the "State Champions" banners from yesteryear, even an announcement over the school public address system summoning someone to the vice principal's office (during the warm-up speaker's introductory remarks, no less!).

Following the introductions, the Edwards family arrived: John and Elizabeth, with their two youngest children, Jack, age 6, and Emma Claire, age 8. They received a truly affectionate welcome from the crowd, far different from the frenzy I've seen greet Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton; the crowd seemed to genuinely like the Edwards', and, after the recent announcements about Elizabeth Edwards' health, exuded something like tenderness toward them. It was touching and moving to witness.

After quieting the applause, John stood with the children while Elizabeth introduced him. She spoke passionately about why she felt John Edwards should be president, and kicked things off to a great start. No candidate could have asked for a more effective introduction.

John Edwards then spoke for about 30 minutes, covering his signature themes: the "two Americas," health care, opposition to the war, energy, poverty, education, the economy, the environment. He sang his usual aria of praise for labor unions. And repeatedly throughout this remarks, John Edwards uttered the word "plans" like a mantra, emphasizing that he has plans, discussing the details of his plans, extolling the virtues of his plans. The target of all this was clearly Barack Obama, with the imputation that, political celebrity though he is, Obama is still something of a policy lightweight. I take this to be a hint at Edwards' campaign strategy, which is that he dearly wants to run against Hillary Clinton for the nomination, and not Obama. We'll see how that one plays out over time.

After the prepared remarks, Edwards fielded ten or so questions from the crowd, on topics ranging from health care to stem cell research to supreme court nominations. Here, as in his prepared remarks, Edwards was nearly flawless: smooth, poised, personable.

Ordinarily, I would not characterize John Edwards as rhetorically gifted - I have not once listened to a formal speech of his and come away impressed. But in town hall settings is where John Edwards finds his gift for communication. He does extremely well in this type of event, and the number of town halls he has held in Iowa over the past few months goes a long way in explaining his presence at the front of the field here.

My expectations for this event were, admittedly, pretty low: going back to the 2004 campaign, I've never been a particular fan of John Edwards. So it's not all that surprizing that he exceeded my expectations in this event. His remarks and answers were detailed, he seemed to know his stuff, he related easily and comfortably with the crowd. What he lacked, however, was passion. Not that John Edwards seemed flat or apathetic at any time; to the contrary, he seemed enthusiastic throughout the event. But his enthusiasm, it appeared to me, derived from the opportunity to meet with and address a crowd of supporters and potential supporters; it was the enthusiasm of a skilled and avid campaigner for office. What John Edwards did not show was passion for the ideas, values and policies he espoused to the crowd; passion you couldn't hide, even if you wanted to; passion on the order of "As President, I will go door to door if I have to, but I will get [policy, proposal, law, whatever] done. And I will do that, even if it means I won't be popular. I will do it even if it means I don't get reelected." Not just enthusiasm for a package of neat ideas, but passion. I've seen it in every other candidate I've met this cycle: Biden, Clinton, Obama. Heck, at this event I even saw it in Elizabeth Edwards. But not John Edwards. Why is that?

Granted, the whole "fire in the belly" thing is a tired cliche and endlessly overblown, but why does John Edwards seem to lack heart and soul passion about the themes of his campaign, where other candidates not only have it, but have it so strongly they are able to impart it to a stadium full of people? It isn't for want of charisma, or campaign experience, that's certain. So why is it? The answer to that question over the next time or two I see John Edwards is going to be a big factor in whether I end up giving him serious consideration for my support. But, I suppose, even with that question hanging out there, the bottom line is this: John Edwards did well enough to merit a second look to try to answer the question. In politics, maybe that's half the battle.


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