Wednesday, July 7, 2004

Dick Gephardt was the safe choice. The former minority leader in the House would have helped John Kerry in his home state, Missouri, a red state George W. Bush must win again in 2004.

An opponent of NAFTA and the trade deals that have caused the loss of 2.6 million manufacturing jobs, Mr. Gephardt could have helped Mr. Kerry in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, where this election will be decided.

Not only do Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Kerry respect and like each other, but Mr. Gephardt passes the “heft test.” No one would question his capacity to stand a heartbeat away. As President Bush has in Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Kerry would have had an experienced partner in every foreign policy deliberation and decision.

Moreover, Mr. Gephardt has been vetted by his years in Washington and two runs for the nomination. There was near-zero risk of a scandal exploding or a skeleton turning up in the Gephardt closet. While he would not have added excitement to the ticket, he would have brought strength.

But Mr. Kerry passed over his old friend for John Edwards, a man of whom he said before the Iowa caucuses: “When I came back from Vietnam in 1969, I don’t know if John Edwards was out of diapers.” Ridiculing the notion of so green a rookie leading the party, Mr. Kerry added, “In the Senate four years, and that is the full extent of public life — no international experience, no military experience — you can imagine what the advertising is going to be next year.”

Yes, we can. Why, then, did Mr. Kerry pick this multimillionaire trial lawyer, who has never run a national media gauntlet, an unaccomplished and retiring senator who may not be able to deliver his home state?

Answer: The Democratic Party put intense pressure on Mr. Kerry to choose Mr. Edwards, because the party does not believe the bland Mr. Kerry has the fire or charisma to defeat George W. Bush. A Kerry-Gephardt ticket, the party feared, would be a crashing bore.

This was an arranged marriage. Mr. Kerry had to do it for the good of the family. As the New York Times reported on the eve of the Edwards selection, “Many prominent Democrats say they have strongly urged Mr. Kerry to choose Mr. Edwards, and warned that he would face a battery of questions if he did not.”

But if this choice does not pan out — if Mr. Edwards’ uninterest and lack of depth in foreign policy hurts the ticket, if his years as a trial lawyer hauling down million-dollar fees become a liability, if he fails to carry his home state of North Carolina and Mr. Kerry loses — the Edwards choice will haunt Mr. Kerry to the grave. For one senses he did not want to do this, that it was forced upon him, that he felt he had to do it, against his own preferences of Dick Gephardt or his friend, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida.

So it is that Mr. Kerry has gambled his shot at the presidency on whether John Edwards will prove the asset his advisers and the party assure him that Mr. Edwards is — but which he himself doubts.

It is a huge gamble. Yet it may work. If Kerry-Edwards should win North Carolina and the nation, the choice of Mr. Edwards will go down in history as inspired as the gamble JFK took when he chose Lyndon B. Johnson, who had called his father an appeaser of Hitler. LBJ brought Texas to the ticket and was decisive in holding the Deep South against Richard Nixon in that closest of all elections.

Nixonhimselfthought Kennedy’s selection of Johnson showed both JFK’s political shrewdness and cold pragmatic streak. What does Mr. Edwards bring?

Youth, charisma, energy — and the enthusiasm of that most critical of all Democratic constituencies, the liberal press.

And the campaign Mr. Edwards conducted, in the late primaries, where he took up the cause of a middle class whose access ramps to the American Dream are being closed off, is an issue on which this election could turn.

The Bush-Republican addiction to free trade, its refusal to police our borders or cut mass immigration, is eventually going to destroy the party. Mr. Edwards, whose home state has suffered terrible losses in the apparel and textile industries, senses this. He came close to seizing the jobs issue from Mr. Kerry in the primaries.

With factories shutting down all over America, with the new jobs being created largely in service industries as corporate profits soar, the issue of a middle class left behind by corporate conservatives in the West Wing could sink the Bush presidency.

If Mr. Edwards can make this case in the industrial heartland, he could win this election for Mr. Kerry. In any event, Mr. Kerry just nervously put all his eggs in the ability of this trial lawyer to sell the American heartland as successfully as he used to sell those North Carolina juries.

Patrick J. Buchanan, a nationally syndicated columnist, was director of communications in the Reagan White House (1985-1987) and twice a candidate for president himself.

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