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Lindsay: Kerry's Decision to Pick Edwards 'Makes a Lot of Sense'

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 6, 2004

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James M. Lindsay, the Council’s director of studies and a longtime student of American politics, says that despite Senator John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) lack of foreign policy experience, presumptive nominee Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) probably made a good choice in picking him as his vice presidential running mate. “Having considerable foreign policy experience can be a big plus in the current environment,” Lindsay says, but lacking it “need not be a major detriment to a vice-presidential candidate.” Because Edwards comes from a different part of the country than Kerry, had a different upbringing, and has a distinctive campaign style, Lindsay says, “I think for Senator Kerry, picking Senator Edwards makes a lot of sense because he complements Senator Kerry in a variety of ways.”

Lindsay, a Council vice president and the holder of the Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, praises Edwards for his charisma and his ability to communicate well with Americans on the campaign trail. He says that the anticipated debate between Edwards and Vice President Dick Cheney will be one of the highlights of the campaign. “Clearly, Vice President Cheney will try to highlight how Edwards doesn’t have the depth and the background to handle the challenges that face the country,” he says. “And Edwards is going to attempt to argue that the administration hasn’t fought for the average American and that’s what he and Senator Kerry intend to do. It will be a terrific debate.”

Lindsay was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on July 6, 2004.


How important is it for a vice-presidential candidate to have much foreign policy experience?

Having considerable foreign policy experience can be a big plus in the current environment, with the United States having numerous foreign policy issues on its plate. However, not having substantial foreign policy experience need not be a major detriment to a vice-presidential candidate.

Let’s cut to the quick. Edwards is on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. As a first-term senator, until the Democratic primaries, he rarely spoke out on foreign policy. But he’s clearly charismatic and popular with voters. Is he a good match for Kerry as far as foreign policy is concerned, or is it that irrelevant?

Senator Kerry clearly has decided to go for the “staff to your weakness” strategy in choosing a vice president. When you are Senator Kerry looking at Senator Edwards, Edwards is different in three important ways: One, he comes from a different part of the country, which helps broaden [the ticket’s] appeal. No. 2, he has a very different biography. Kerry is part of the elite, having gone to private schools, having lived overseas; John Edwards is the son of a mill worker— you’ll be hearing a lot of that over the next four months. And No. 3, Senator Edwards has a very different speaking style— he’s charismatic, he’s engaging, he was a very successful trial lawyer. I think for Senator Kerry, picking Senator Edwards makes a lot of sense because he complements Senator Kerry in a variety of ways.

In the primaries, Senator Edwards pressed hard on NAFTA [the North American Free trade Agreement] and other treaties or laws that were perceived to cause job losses. Will his trade positions help or hinder Kerry?

One of the themes that Senator Edwards pressed during his one term in the Senate and also on the stump when he was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination was his skepticism about free trade agreements. And that clearly was a popular position for him to take, given the economics of North Carolina, where textile industries are under threat from foreign competition. It also was a policy that made a lot of sense given the core of the Democratic Party. For Senator Kerry, Senator Edwards’ hostility to pure free trade agreements can help Kerry in the battleground states like Michigan, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, where a lot of blue-collar industries have been hurt by foreign competition. So in that sense he can very much help the Kerry ticket.

Is it your understanding that Kerry and Edwards are more or less in line on the need to stay in Iraq and on the virtues of overthrowing Saddam?

Yes. Senator Edwards, like Senator Kerry, voted for the resolution authorizing President [Bush] to invade Iraq. They have both, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, stressed the importance of making Iraq work. I would expect, going forward, that you will hear Senator Edwards strongly adhere to the lines that Senator Kerry has mapped out on the importance of working with allies. But at the end of the day, Senator Edwards’ views on Iraq are probably not going to tip the balance of voting one way or another, because many voters are going to be skeptical about what either candidate can do in Iraq. A lot of our Iraq debate is really about whether we should have gone to war in Iraq the way we did, rather than how to make Iraq work. So on that issue, the president and his Democratic rival are in the same area code, if not the same zip code.

If you’re in the Bush camp and you’re now dealing with Edwards, what kind of strategy would you employ?

Edwards poses several problems for the administration. He is from the South, which doesn’t mean that these states are now going to go for Kerry, but it can make Kerry much more appealing in border states like West Virginia, perhaps in Missouri. No. 2, Senator Edwards is very articulate, indeed charismatic, and there is a hope that he can take away some of the stiffness that seems to infect Senator Kerry.

So for the Bush people, what they are going to do is attack what they perceive to be Edwards’ weaknesses, and those are twofold: One, he has very little foreign policy experience— he was only a one-term senator— and that now is not a time to put in a man, who will be a heartbeat away from the presidency, who doesn’t have a deep biography in foreign affairs. The second avenue the administration will attack Edwards on is his work as a trial lawyer. It could be argued that one of the reasons people pay so much for insurance and a variety of other things is that trial lawyers go out and unfairly exploit mistakes made by companies, driving up costs for all. That could be a dangerous strategy for the administration to take because Edwards’ work as trial lawyer also allows him to make the case to the American people that he’s a fighter for them. Edwards won a series of cases for people who were horribly hurt by others’ negligence, and that [record] could be compelling political rhetoric.

I gather that Edwards didn’t get involved in class action suits, which is a real bete noire to Republicans.

I cannot speak to how many class action suits he participated in, but it’s clear that there are a number of individual cases that Edwards tried and won very large verdicts for people who suffered horrific injuries. And I imagine that we will hear a lot of that as we go forward as the Democrats make the case— or try to make the case— that they are fighting for Americans— for their jobs, for their futures— and that distinguishes them from the administration, which they will argue is out of touch with mainstream American values.

By picking Edwards, Kerry obviously decided against people who might have been more popular in the Northern states and might have attracted more union support, such as Richard Gephardt. Does that matter?

Kerry had a very short list of potential nominees, reflecting that the Democratic bench wasn’t terribly deep. Richard Gephardt had not been very successful during the [primary] campaign, which raised the question of how much more he could bring to the Kerry ticket. Edwards did finish second to Kerry in a number of states. I think the hope is that Edwards’ youth, charisma, his real optimism about America’s future will be a strong selling point to the electorate. Nobody in the Kerry camp is laboring under the illusion that vice presidents move large numbers of voters, because they don’t. But if we have a very tight election, making the right vice-presidential choice that moves some votes could be decisive.

How would you compare Vice President Dick Cheney and Edwards?

The vice-presidential debate between Cheney and Edwards will be a clash in contrasting styles and personalities. Cheney is a vastly underrated debater; I think he did remarkably well against [Democratic vice presidential nominee] Senator [Joe] Lieberman back in 2000. The great strength Cheney has is that he is so understated when he speaks. What Edwards brings is an unusual ability to reach out and speak to people and to radiate sincerity and optimism. And it will be very interesting to watch how that debate unfolds. Clearly, Vice President Cheney will try to highlight how Edwards doesn’t have the depth and the background to handle the challenges that face the country. And Edwards is going to attempt to argue that the administration hasn’t fought for the average American and that’s what he and Senator Kerry intend to do. It will be a terrific debate.

I haven’t been able to find much information about Edwards’ record on issues like the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian differences.

On the Middle East peace process, like almost every other issue you can think of, Edwards has taken a position, and over the next several weeks, very smart journalists are going to pour over everything that he’s said and done, looking for the slightest bit of daylight between him and Senator Kerry. This is standard fare in presidential elections. There’ll be a lot of front page stories arguing, or suggesting, that Senator Edwards is changing his positions to bring himself closer in line with Senator Kerry. At the end of the day, those stories aren’t worth a hill of beans.

It keeps the papers full.

It keeps journalists employed and busy.

And from Kerry’s point of view, it keeps his campaign in the limelight. The 9/11 Commission is going to make its report this week.

Yes. There are a number of events coming up that create opportunities and dilemmas for both candidates. The immediate one is the release of the 9/11 report and what it says and what it recommends. The other major development— the wild card out there— is the situation in Iraq: are things going to get better or worse?

Edwards has been on the intelligence committee. Has he said much on that subject?

Senators who sit on the intelligence committee don’t get to say much because much of what they learn is classified, and they don’t get to talk about it. The interesting issue will be where Senator Edwards comes down on intelligence reform. His speeches on that subject will be of great interest to scholars and policy-makers, and probably of very little interest to the average voter.

What the average voter is going to want to know is, “What are you going to do to make me and my family safe, and why should I have confidence that you can carry out what it is you are promising?” That’s really the nut-and-bolt test. A lot of it depends on people’s gut-level feeling on whether they can trust candidates. One of the things that Senator Edwards has going for himself is that he’s extraordinarily articulate, and that is a very strong quality to bring to a political debate. Having said that, I think the pressure he’s going to experience over the next several months is going to be much more intense than anything he’s ever felt.

Have you announced that you are a supporter of either party right now?

I do not support either party, nor do I work for any campaign. I don’t give advice to either campaign.

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