If John Edwards is lucky, the next two weeks of media coverage will sound something like this: His campaign has achieved its surprising success, most recently in Wisconsin last night, by turning generations of strategy on its head. Instead of tearing his opponents a new one, Edwards has thrown out the old Lee Atwater attack manual and adopted niceness as his preferred mode of discourse. Edwards will be lucky if the press adopts this line, because it will provide him with cover to evolve his campaign to its next stage--the stage where he must abandon everything but the pretense of gentility and attack Kerry like hell.
Of course, it's hard to quibble with the results that Edwards's politeness has yielded thus far. As of last night, it had helped him leapfrog over more experienced, better-financed candidates and into a two-man race. But niceness has finally reached the limits of effectiveness. After Wisconsin, there are simply no other opportunities on the calendar for the time-intensive retail politicking that allows Edwards to win over audiences with his rosy outlook. From here on out, he will have to use the media and commercials to make his case, forums that lend themselves far more to bold contrasts than subtle salesmanship.
And, make no mistake: attacking Kerry presents Edwards with a very real chance of success. Particularly if Edwards seizes on Kerry's greatest vulnerability -- his habit of taking both sides of every major issue. You can already see the press's growing unease with Kerry in the tepid reviews that they gave his performance in last weekend's debate -- and the schadenfreude they're enjoying after his disappointing Wisconsin finish. For a concrete example of this nascent wave of anti-Kerry sentiment, see E.J. Dionne's column in yesterday's Washington Post. Dionne argued that the front-runner was reverting to his roundly panned, orotund, mealy-mouthed style of last year. The commentariat, in other words, is primed to turn against Kerry.
Likewise, the onslaught of primaries on March 2, though problematic for a candidate with cash-flow problems, also presents Edwards with an opportunity. While March 2 does indeed require a heaping pile of ducats, the upshot is that it requires more money than even Kerry has. True, as front-runner, he can coast to some extent on free media. But the important point is that he can't simultaneously run ads in Atlanta, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cleveland, the major March 2 media markets. And with both sides having to husband resources, the race becomes much more of a chess match. Edwards could actually steal some victories from Kerry in such a contest, assuming he strongly presents a reason for people to buck the Kerry juggernaut.
(One sidebar about Edwards's underrated strength: With Dean out of the race, a chunk of the party's left is suddenly up for grabs. Although Edwards has done best among moderates and conservatives, his recent spate of anti-trade perorations have positioned him well to grab liberals.)
But, according to one strain of conventional wisdom, Edwards will never adopt this more feisty tone because he has too much to lose from going negative. In particular, wouldn't going negative hurt his chances in the veepstakes? Maybe. But unless Edwards can cut some sort of secret deal with Kerry, campaigning for the second spot is a total crapshoot. Outside of Ronald Reagan picking George H.W. Bush, there are few recent instances of nominees tapping vanquished foes to be their running mate. And since Edwards has only won the state of his birth, he could have a hard time convincing the Kerry campaign of his political prowess. His best hope for getting on the ticket is to continue to show his electoral potential. And his best hope for showing his potential is aggressively campaigning and beating John Kerry in a few more states. Besides, Edwards needs to prove his inner political animal to the Kerry campaign. If he doesn't have enough grit to go after Kerry, how is he supposed to tackle Dick Cheney?
More important, Edwards doesn't need to worry about injuring his career. He has already cemented his reputation in the media for up-beat campaigning. And, fortunately for him, he has a light touch that is perfectly suited for sticking in the knife. When he's taken his shots against Kerry, as he did in the last debate, he's done so with humor and without rancor. "That's the longest answer I ever heard to a yes-or-no question," he cracked after one of Kerry's windier orations at last Sunday's debate. To invoke the overused trial lawyer metaphor: Edwards has shown his ability to deliver a sweet closing argument. But presumably he also has lots of experience tearing up opposing witnesses in cross-examination, without looking like a jerk.
None of which has stopped Democrats from moaning that to attack Kerry is to supply quotes Karl Rove will recycle in ads -- all the more so if Edwards attacks Kerry as a double-talker, the charge Rove is itching to level against him. But pulling punches doesn't help Kerry or the party. It merely leads to the nomination of an untested, unprepared candidate. Wouldn't it be far better to find out if Kerry can take a punch before he wraps up the nomination?
Still, Edwards seems genuinely tormented about going negative. So, it is incumbent upon all of his fans and all of Kerry's detractors to taunt Edwards into getting tough. Let me be the first: Come on Johnny, don't be such a wuss!
Franklin Foer is an associate editor at TNR.
By Franklin Foer