Kerry v. Edwards

Now that Wesley Clark is out of the race and it’s down to Kerry v. Edwards, who am I for?

I’m very glad you asked that question. Now, if there are no further questions, class is dismissed.

The short answer is that I’m not sure and don’t much care.

Clark was, I hoped, a potential vehicle for curing the Democrats’ cultural problem and andreia deficiency. Kerry and Edwards don’t seem to me to have that potential to nearly the same extent: Kerry has more obvious andreia than Edwards but is less reassuring culturally.

But either is a fairly close substitute for the “generic Democrat” who has been leading Bush in the polls for quite a while now.

Edwards seems to be by far the better natural politician. If he looked older and had some foreign policy or national security credentials he’d make a great candidate. But as it is, he’s almost as unqualified to be President as GWB was four years ago, and that’s pretty scary. Plus he carries the “trial lawyer” baggage, which offsets somewhat his man-of-the-people appeal.

Kerry seems to have found his voice; I just hope his war-hero record will insulate him against some imprudent post-Vietnam remarks on military and security issues. He’s done a good job sounding tough against Bush: if he can convince the voters that he would be equally tough against the nation’s enemies, he’s probably a winner.

Which would make the better President? Search me. The record tells you much less than you think it does.

Harry Truman and JFK were both long-service Senators with negligible records of legislative accomplishment, and both performed more than adequately as President. No one predicted — or, I submit, could have predicted based on his Senate record — that LBJ would be the manager of the Second Reconstruction, but that’s how he turned out.

Jimmy Carter was, as far as I can tell, a pretty damned terrific governor of Georgia, and Bill Clinton had a solid record in Arkansas and a sky-high IQ. Both of them were piss-poor Presidents, who never figured out the Neustadtian lesson that a President’s first job is to make the people who nominally work for him actually work for him, and to convince the other players that their interests will be served better by helping the President than by obstructing his path.

The one issue where Kerry and Edwards seem to differ is trade. Substantively I remain an orthodox free-trader (like most other academics and journalists, whose jobs can’t be outsourced), which makes me incline toward Kerry, but I doubt that Edwards’s actual behavior in office would be noticeably worse from my perspective than Kerry’s would. Both would probably wind up pushing for adjustment assistance for displaced workers, and both would support the macroeconomic and other policies that would, by helping tighten the labor market, make “trade” a less compelling issue politically. But protectionism might well be — much as I hate to admit it — a winning in November.

So I’m quite unashamed of choosing between the two on the basis of electability. And right now, electability looks to me like a toss-up. (I’d still have to bet that Edwards would be more helpful than Kerry to House and Senate candidates in Red states, but even that isn’t certain.)

The press hates Kerry about as much as it hated Gore, and that’s bad news, but is it enough to offset his other advantages? How bad is the risk that the country would decide, come October, that Edwards lacks the gravitas required of a wartime President? Anyone who pretends to know the answers to such questions is blowing smoke.

So we now have two Democrats running, either in my view much better than Bush and well above my comfort level for a candidate, either in my view capable of beating Bush if the cards fall right. I have no clear view as to which would make the better candidate or the better President.

As long as they keep it relatively polite, continuing the Kerry-Edwards battle for another two weeks, or even another month, might well be a net positive for whichever of them is nominated. Yes, it chews up money, but it also earns them free media.

I don’t really believe the new Gallup poll showing both of them with double-digit leads over Bush, but it’s sure nice to read, and it suggests to me that the primary battle, at least so far, is helping rather than hurting.

[Gallup’s analysis of the poll is worth pondering. Kerry and Edwards both have bigger leads among “likely voters” than among all registered voters, which is the reverse of the usual pattern. Gallup is finding that Democrats are now (unlike a month ago) more stirred up about politics and more interested in voting than are Republicans. Maybe that’s a transient effect, but on the other hand maybe it’s not. If not, it’s good for Democratic candidates at all levels.]

So I’m planning to relax, help remind my readers of Mr. Bush’s inadequacies, write checks to both Kerry and Edwards, feed policy advice to anyone on either staff who seems interested, and support the winner enthusiastically. And I think I have lots of company.

Update Just to be clear: I think Kerry has an edge over Edwards on security as a candidate; I’m agnostic as to which would make the better national-security Preisident.

Edwards doesn’t know much, but is a quick study and with no obvious prejudices; Kerry knows a lot more, but much of what he knows (and, more importantly, lots of what he feels in his gut) is wrong. Either would be better than the current resident at 1600 Penn., who doesn’t know much, knows mostly things that ain’t so, and is actively uninterested in either learning the truth or unlearning the falsehoods.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: