Time for Another Outsider?

Politics is all about timing. Some years, the timing is just right for an "outsider" who promises to "clean up the mess in Washington." That was true in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower won the White House, and in 1976, when Jimmy Carter got elected after the Watergate scandal, and in 1980, when Ronald Reagan came in to clean up Carter's mess. It was also true in 1992, when Bill Clinton succeeded a president who was seen as "out of touch" with the American people.

Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., is betting that 2004 will be another one of those years. Right now, that doesn't look like a good bet. But in politics, two years is an eternity. Edwards, who acknowledges consulting Clinton, is modeling his campaign after Clinton's 1992 race. The question is whether this President Bush will assume his father's losing 1992 role.

Edwards's message is distinctly populist. "What I will be is somebody who champions the cause of regular people," Edwards said in announcing his intention to run. His life and career are consistent with that message. He was the first member of his family to attend college. He made a fortune as a trial lawyer in personal injury cases, winning huge awards for ordinary people fighting big companies. Edwards has also had to deal with tragedy in his personal life. In 1996, his 16-year-old son was killed in a car crash.

Edwards's major strength is his ability to connect with people. After all, a successful trial lawyer has to persuade juries of "regular people." Edwards does not sound like a Washington insider or a policy wonk and thus avoids a problem that proved to be Al Gore's undoing and one that could doom the prospects of Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., the current favorite among insiders.

Isn't a U.S. senator by definition a Washington insider? Not necessarily. This is Edwards's first elected office and his first term in the Senate. His 1998 campaign was mostly self-financed. He took no money from political action committees or lobbyists.

But is Edwards really a populist? Like most Democrats today, Edwards talks the language of fiscal responsibility. That's the way "green-eyeshade" conservatives talk, not hell-raising populists. Populism has always meant taxing and spending. Edwards talks about cutting spending and bureaucracy. In announcing his presidential bid, he called for tax cuts targeted to help "ordinary people."

On social issues, Edwards is more of a liberal than a populist. He gets 85 and 90 percent ratings from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. He supports abortion rights and has voted against a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. Edwards's response to charges he is a liberal: Don't talk about those issues. They certainly won't be a problem for him in the Democratic primaries. But what if he wins the Democratic nomination? Won't Republicans try to expose him as a liberal, the way an earlier George Bush exposed Michael Dukakis in 1988? They'd certainly try. But unlike Dukakis, Edwards would undoubtedly fight back.

Clinton, too, spoke the language of fiscal responsibility. In fact, he was responsible for pulling the Democratic Party to the center on economic policy, with his stands on balanced budgets, welfare, and free trade. And Clinton certainly was a liberal on such social issues as abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, and gun control. He managed to preserve a populist appeal, simply through his ability to connect with people. Edwards, who shares Clinton's accent, style, and message, is the truest Clintonian in the 2004 race.

Edwards's populist message ought to work, against the most corporate administration in American history. The country is, after all, being governed by a bunch of rich white guys with ties to the oil industry. Edwards is a rich white guy, too, but he made his fortune by taking on big corporate interests.

Last year's corporate scandals should have brought down an administration that looked like this one. So far, however, mostly because of 9/11, Bush has escaped damage from the scandals. He could, of course, still be vulnerable if the economy worsens. If this president ends up looking out of touch, as his father did, Edwards is probably the Democrat best positioned to take him on.

Edwards has seen his stock go down since 9/11 because of his lack of experience in world affairs. At a time when Americans want a president who can make them feel safe, Edwards's greatest liability is his perceived lack of gravitas. The questions most often raised about him are, "Is he ready? Is this his time?" Edwards has tried to minimize this liability by traveling, meeting with world leaders, and making speeches. After all, Carter was a one-term governor of Georgia when he got elected president, and Carter recently won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In his announcement, Edwards tried to give a populist spin to the national security issue, arguing that he would do more to involve "regular people" in homeland security. But 2004 may be a year when Americans are looking for a sure hand, not a fresh face.

Edwards for vice president? Could he run with, say, Kerry, who has strong national security credentials? Maybe, but another Southerner, Sen. Bob Graham, may look more attractive. Graham is the departing chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. And he's been elected governor and senator five times by, ahem, Florida.