Commentary

More Lobbyist Than Leader

This article originally appeared in The American Prowler on May 6, 2003.

People are fond of saying that “money talks” in politics no less than in life. In presidential elections, money has something to say, but you have to listen closely. Take the case of Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), who wants to be the Democratic presidential candidate.

Recently we learned Edwards had raised over $7 million for his campaign, second only to front-runner Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). This success gave Edwards credibility with journalists and party leaders. On the bad side, he had to give back some of the money when it turned out the donations violated federal law. Now the Department of Justice is looking into the case.

Having to return the donations surely says little about Edwards’ personal integrity. Some employees of a law firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, apparently gave the Edwards campaign the maximum legal donation of $2,000 believing their employer, a friend and supporter of the senator, would reimburse them. That’s illegal under federal law, and once the violation became known, the Edwards campaign promptly returned the money. The rest of us can take some comfort in knowing that Edwards did the right thing, at least once the Washington Post found out his fundraisers had done the wrong thing.

Edwards’ mini-scandal grew out of the intense competition for the Democratic presidential nomination. He faces an uphill battle to become the Democratic candidate in 2004. The media have already crowned Sen. John Kerry as the front-runner. Faced with Kerry and other tough rivals, Edwards desperately needed to prove his candidacy was serious.

Fundraising aside, Edwards’ appeal to the Democratic faithful lies elsewhere. He is putting himself forward as a political moderate from the South. He offers the prospect of a return to the 1990s when another Southern moderate, Bill Clinton, won two terms in the White House. Edwards hopes Democrats will recall the electoral disasters brought on the party by a Northeasterner (Michael Dukakis) in 1988 and a Midwesterner (Walter Mondale) in 1984.

Edwards has a point. No one should doubt the power of regionalism in American politics. All presidents since 1972 have been from the South or the West. Edwards has one essential trait for winning the presidency.

But John Edwards is not Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton (not to mention Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush). He’s not a former governor. All presidents since 1972 (save for George H.W. Bush) have held the highest office in a state far from Washington, D.C. That’s not surprising. Americans regularly tell pollsters they don’t trust the federal government. Their faith in D.C. has improved ever so slightly of late but probably not enough to elect a Washington insider (or someone from Massachusetts).

Edwards is a senator (and hence, an insider) but only recently arrived (elected in 1998). He might hope to run a populist campaign and hope his Southern charm carries him the rest of the way.

Yet Edwards became rich as a trial lawyer and gets most of his campaign funds from his fellow plaintiffs of the bar. He has gotten about 60 percent of his funding for the presidential campaign from other lawyers. There’s nothing illegal or immoral about that. Lawyers also have a right to participate in politics.

Having trial lawyers for friends and supporters, however, contravenes the image Edwards hopes to cultivate as an outsider who will stand up to the special interests in D.C. Fairly or not, trial lawyers seem to have found their own presidential candidate in John Edwards.

Edwards will say trial lawyers fight for the little guy against big corporations who have done them wrong. His opponents will surely point out that two thirds of Edwards’ money comes from donors giving the legal maximum of $2,000. That may make his populist rhetoric sound hollow.

We should not be concerned that John Edwards’ campaign broke some campaign finance rules. We should wonder why he has not attracted broad support from Democratic donors. Americans hope to elect a president who seeks, to the best of his ability, the good of the nation as a whole. For now, John Edwards seems more of a lobbyist than a leader.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.