John Edwards proved a powerful advocate for a strain of economic populism whose resurgent power he sensed before his rivals, and whose policy framework he helped establish.
But Edwards’ decision to leave the race Wednesday was a mark of the fact that despite a pitch-perfect political performance, and despite a declaration that he was engaged in the “cause of my life,” he never quite sold himself to voters.
Edwards’ insistence on his own authenticity was at the center of his political appeal.
He cast every policy stance, every political move, as flowing straight from his heart and his childhood in a South Carolina mill town.
Edwards said that on the way to announce the suspension of his campaign in the same hurricane-ravaged section of New Orleans where he began it more than a year ago, he stopped to talk with homeless men and women living under a nearby bridge.
One of them, he said, asked him to never forget them or their plight.
“Well, I say to her and I say to all those who are struggling in this country, we will never forget you. We will fight for you. We will stand up for you.”
That pitch — of a campaign as a moral crusade born deeply out of personal experience — also offered a choice more stark, and fraught with more potential peril, than most politicians pose to the electorate: Either Edwards was speaking from his heart or he was faking it.
With Edwards, there was no wink, no middle ground, even when it came to tactical shifts like a decision to accept public campaign financing.
That tension was a source of accusations of inauthenticity from his rivals and the press.
And his record as a moderate, one-term senator — voting for the war in Iraq and for trade with China — proved an albatross he could never quite shake in a contest against better-known, and better-funded, rivals.
Aides and Edwards himself said the symbolism of returning to New Orleans to leave the race was no accident.
“This journey of ours began right here … and we will continue to come back. We will never forget the heartache and we will always be here to help,” Edwards said.
“He’s trying to send a signal to the other candidates that he hopes that this issue will continue to be something that the two of them will carry on, that he will be committed to,” said Jennifer Palmieri, an Edwards adviser.
His departure, however, raises a pair of immediate political questions: What will Edwards do? And what will his supporters do?
Edwards did not immediately endorse either of his rivals and said both had told him that they would make the goal of ending poverty “central” to their campaigns and presidencies if elected.
Edwards signaled repeatedly this year that he felt himself closer to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
Obama “believes deeply in change, and I believe deeply in change,” the former North Carolina senator said at a debate in Manchester, N.H., earlier this month, where he associated Hillary Rodham Clinton, by contrast, with the “status quo.”
And Obama made his bid for Edwards’ endorsement in a statement today.
“John Edwards has spent a lifetime fighting to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the struggling, even when it wasn’t popular to do or covered in the news,” Obama said in a statement, echoing Edwards’ campaign themes and his resentment of meager press coverage.
“While his campaign may end today, the cause of their lives endures for all of us who still believe that we can achieve that dream of one America.”
A spokesman for Obama, Bill Burton, declined to comment on printed speculation that Edwards could parlay his endorsement for the post of attorney general in an Obama administration.
Clinton also lavished her former rival in praise, and signaled that she’d seek his support.
“John Edwards ended his campaign today in the same way he started it — by standing with the people who are too often left behind and nearly always left out of our national debate,” Clinton said in a statement.
“I wish John and Elizabeth all the best. They have my great personal respect and gratitude. And I know they will continue to fight passionately for the country and the people they love so deeply.”
But while his support could offer a boost to either candidate, it remains unclear how many votes he can bring along. Edwards never emerged as the leader of a movement.
He was the favorite of a demographic group — working-class white men — from which he himself had risen, and with which both Clinton and Obama seemed to struggle at times to connect.
Speculation immediately focused on whether those voters had already considered and rejected Clinton — or whether they, like many of their wives and sisters, would tip her way instead of Obama’s once Edwards left the race.
Edwards’ main legacy in the race may be in Democratic policy circles, where he’s seen as pulling uncertain, centrist front-runners toward the party’s “progressive” wing on issues beginning with a press for withdrawal from Iraq and ending with universal health care.
“Edwards’ biggest problem may have been that he was too compelling — so compelling that his rivals effectively adopted his agenda,” health care policy journalist Jonathan Cohn wrote in The New Republic Wednesday morning.
“Pundits frequently criticized Edwards for his unabashed populism, and it’s true, his rhetoric was the most openly confrontational of the three leading Democrats. But in terms of what the three were actually proposing to do, the agendas were virtually identical — not to mention widely popular, if the polls are to be believed. We’re all populists now.”