The men's biographical and stylistic similarities are most often cited (Yankee media types tend to think all Southerners sound alike), though their policy parallels should not be ignored.
But when you get right down to it, just how far can the comparison go? And, in a point-by-point match up, could Edwards possibly even come out ahead? Tomorrow, the fine folks of South Carolina will have their say about whether Edwards should be allowed to keep running with the big dogs. In preparation for that make-or-break vote, here's your quick and dirty guide to Johnny vs. Billy.
Born in Seneca, South Carolina, Edwards spent much of his childhood in the small, conservative town of Robbins, North Carolina. For those of you just emerging from a persistent vegetative state, his daddy was a textile-mill worker. So, for a time, was his mama. In high school, Edwards was the golden-boy athlete who always got the best-looking girls. As the senator loves to remind us, he was the first in his family to go to college. Raised Southern Baptist, he later joined the Methodist church.
Born in Hope, Arkansas, William Jefferson Blythe IV grew up in the not-so-conservative gambling and resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas. His daddy drowned in a roadside ditch three months before Bill's birth. Young Billy spent his first four years living with his grandparents while his mama, Virginia, went to school in New Orleans to become a nurse-anesthetist. Returning to Arkansas, Virginia married Roger Clinton, an abusive alcoholic whom she at one point divorced but then remarried during Bill's teen years. In high school, Clinton was an academic striver and band member who nonetheless fared well with the girls. Unlike Edwards, Clinton stuck with his Southern Baptist faith.
Advantage: Edwards. While both men have the up-from-nothing bio voters love, Edwards's is the simpler, sweeter vision of the American dream, unmarred by all the seediness and broken-family drama of Clinton's childhood.
YOUNG ADULT YEARS
After high school, Edwards headed to Clemson University, where he played football as a walk-on. Failing to earn an athletic scholarship, however, he couldn't afford the university's price tag. At the end of his freshman year he transferred to North Carolina State, where he earned his degree in just three years time. In 1974 he headed to UNC Chapel Hill for law school. It was there that Edwards met and wooed his wife, Elizabeth.
From Hot Springs High, Clinton went east to Georgetown for his undergraduate days. During his junior and senior years, he worked as an aide to Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright. After graduation, it was off to Oxford on a prestigious Rhodes scholarship -- where he engaged in a bit of anti-Vietnam organizing -- and then to Yale Law School, where he met Hillary.
Advantage: Slightly to Edwards. While his academic credentials don't shine quite as brightly, the senator followed the more recognizable, slightly less uppity path to success. He worked hard, stayed close to home, kept his debts to a minimum, then got down to the business of becoming financially independent. Clinton, meanwhile, went straight from high school into the ranks of the East Coast intellectual elite -- not necessarily a selling point for many blue-collar voters. Plus, there was that unseemly antiwar business in England, which became even more problematic once questions surfaced about just how far young Bill had gone to avoid/evade the draft.
After a few years defending corporate clients in Nashville, Edwards returned to North Carolina and began racking up major wins -- and major bucks -- as a plaintiff's attorney. By the time he was elected to the Senate in 1998, he owned multiple houses and his estimated worth was in the neighborhood of $30 million.
After graduating Yale in 1973, Clinton began teaching at the University of Arkansas Law School. In 1974, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress. In 1976, he was elected Arkansas attorney general, and in 1978, at age 32, he became the nation's youngest governor. After one term, he was booted from office by voters who had come to see him as arrogant. But two years later, he returned to the statehouse, where he served another four terms before hitting the political jackpot in 1992.
Advantage: Clearly to Clinton. In terms of experience both in office and in the heat of political battle, Edwards isn't qualified to shine Bubba's shoes. The first-term senator's resumé is far less like the forty-second president's than like the forty-third's. Both George W. Bush and Edwards had a measly five or so years of public service under their belts before grabbing for the brass ring. And, unlike Bush, prior to running for Senate, Edwards never showed the slightest interest in politics, often even forgetting to vote.
Clinton, by contrast, was reportedly fascinated by politics as early as age ten, when he became entranced by the 1956 Democratic convention. Legend has it that he became hooked when, as a member of Boys Nation, in 1963, he traveled to Washington and shook hands with JFK. At Yale, he worked both on Joe Lieberman's 1970 state Senate campaign and, more seriously, on George McGovern's 1972 presidential bid. By the time he was 45 -- the age at which Edwards arrived in the Senate -- Clinton had already served 13 years in public office, 11 of those as his state's chief executive. As governor, Clinton earned the rep of a star on the rise (despite the lack of an economic turnaround in Arkansas like the one Michael Dukakis had enjoyed in Massachusetts) and was asked in 1988 to deliver Dukakis's nominating speech at the Democratic convention. Bottom line: Edwards may share Clinton's mind-boggling ambition, but he has never been the political animal Bubba was -- and is.
Let's get this over with. Like Clinton, Edwards is an economic populist, promising to work tirelessly for the working people of this great nation. (Though Clinton's populism was arguably more rhetorical than substantive.) Also like Clinton, he stresses a message of personal responsibility for everyone. (Edwards would make the first year of college free for young folks willing to work ten hours a week.) He is a champion of targeted tax breaks (a $5,000 credit for first-time home buyers) and middle-class tax relief. His bite-size proposals are more like Clinton circa '96 (small-scale ideas that won't break the bank) than the universal-healthcare-promising Clinton of '92 -- arguably a wise decision in light of the grand and growing deficits the Bushies have saddled us with. Like Clinton, he supports the death penalty and women's right to abortion. He supports adoption by gay parents but contends that Americans are not yet ready to accept gay marriage. He is, however, less of a free trader than Clinton, in large part because of the devastation that NAFTA has wrought on the textile mills of North Carolina.
Also like Clinton (and Reagan and Carter and George W. Bush), Edwards is running without any significant foreign policy cred. From what he's shown thus far, Edwards, like Clinton, has interventionist instincts. But post-9/11, voters may be too skittish to trust a Democrat whose only experience with international affairs involves a stint on the Senate Intelligence committee.
Advantage: Overwhelmingly to Clinton. For all their policy similarities, Clinton was (and remains) a genuine wonk, while Edwards's knowledge of policy detail comes off as a touch superficial. (Early in the campaign, Clinton even told Edwards he needed to do a little more homework before he'd be ready for prime-time. No one would have thought to say such a thing to Governor Clinton in the early '90s.) Still, Clinton's advantage here is probably due as much to the nature of the times as to individual achievement.
Edwards is about as charming as a politician gets -- perhaps not surprising from a guy who made his fortune sweet-talking juries and out-talking opposing counsel. Clinton himself once marveled that Edwards "could talk an owl out of a tree." The smile is infectious, appearing unforced and utterly genuine. The easy-going, conversational speaking style works well in talks with voters. And the Deep South drawl is downright heavenly. (Much yummier than W.'s Texas twang.)
His ability to connect with people on a personal level (often reducing them to tears) is legendary. Slightly less celebrated -- though arguably just as important -- is his gift for distilling complex issues into words that non-wonks can understand. (Prime example: his framing of Bushonomics as a "war on work" that's systematically shifting the tax burden off of wealth -- capital gains, inheritances, etc. -- and onto work.) By dint of his upbringing, he enjoys a cultural comfort with small-town America. He can talk about God and guns and (heavy sigh) even NASCAR without sounding like he's reading from some bullet-pointed memo drawn up by his rural-outreach adviser. Granted, there have been rumblings that Edwards lacks Clinton's mastery of wowing large audiences. But give the boy time. After all, Clinton's endless, droning 1988 nominating speech for Dukakis wound up as fodder for Johnny Carson.
Clinton arguably has all of Edwards's gifts, but with one not inconsequential addition: his famous comfort and personal identification with the black community. Black America may well like John Edwards, but the senator lacks the well-established rapport and long-standing relationships that Clinton brought to the table. And no matter how successful in advancing the cause of racial equality his presidency might prove, Edwards would almost certainly not have Tony Morrison declaring him America's second black president.
By classical standards, Edwards is more attractive than Clinton. The animal magnetism notwithstanding, Bubba was always a little too fleshy, and his nose a bit too bulbous, to be conventionally handsome. Edwards, by contrast, was named America's sexiest politician by "People" magazine in 2000.
Less helpfully, the senator looks preternaturally young. (My mother refuses to believe he's 50.) And in these troubled times, with voters craving security and thus looking for a leader with gravitas, this boyishness could hurt Edwards, especially among voters already anxious about his thin resume.
Elizabeth Anania Edwards, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a liberated career gal with her own law practice for many years. But following the death of the Edwards's 16-year-old son Wade in 1996, Elizabeth ended her law career and eventually underwent fertility treatments in order to have two more children. Thus, whatever her past careerism, she is unlikely to become the feminist lightening rod that Hillary was. Plus, despite insisting that she'll always speak her mind, Elizabeth has thus far been savvy enough not to make any smarty-pants remarks about refusing to bake cookies or stand by her man -- and she seems happy enough to be called simply by her married name.
Advantage: Definitely Edwards.
THE SEX QUESTION
For those paying attention, Clinton's little zipper problem should have come as no surprise. Rumors about his extramarital dalliances were flying around Arkansas as far back as 1980. By 1990, they were impossible to avoid. Less prominently, talk of possible drug use was also circulating long before Clinton asked America to believe that he did not inhale.
Edwards's campaign has been upfront, if somewhat vague about their man's youthful experimentation with weed. (He tried it a few times. No we won't go into detail. Everybody move on.) More importantly, despite the senator's obvious appeal to the opposite sex, he has never been rumored to have Lotharian tendencies. If Edwards has ever strayed, he's had the good sense to do it discreetly. The odds that Americans would some day find themselves reading legal depositions about his penchant for cigars and thong-flashing interns seem vanishingly slim.
Advantage: Clearly Edwards.
While Edwards has some basic advantages over Clinton (including a less flammable wife and the ability to keep his snake in its cage), he also lacks some of the fundamental neediness and political mania that kept Clinton going in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. (In politics, it often helps to be a little crazy.) More concretely, Edwards will likely fall victim to the times; he is a pre-9/11 guy running in a post-9/11 world -- a weakness Karl Rove and Co. would be happy to spend $50 million in TV ads to exploit.
That said, it ain't over 'til it's over. And whatever gifts Clinton brought to his quest for the White House, much of his larger-than-life persona and the whole Clinton mythology emerged specifically because he won a tough race (and later triumphed in countless ugly political battles) that no one expected him to. If Edwards could do the same, you can bet the process of image inflation would kick into high gear. Eight or twelve years from now, some poor shmuck with a nice smile and a blue-collar background might well find himself being wistfully compared to the incomparable President Edwards.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at TNR.
By Michelle Cottle