Money, Politics, and Four Rich Men


The New York Times

July 10, 2004

WASHINGTON Every presidential ticket is a snapshot of a party, a particular political moment, a particular political need.

Often, it shows politicians scrambling to pull together various regions or ideological wings of a party, like Franklin D. Roosevelt paired with the conservative Texan John Nance Garner, the speaker of the House, in 1932. Sometimes, the politicians are trying to reflect (and capitalize on) a major social or demographic change - notably Walter F. Mondale, hoping to galvanize his decidedly uphill campaign by naming a woman, Geraldine A. Ferraro, as his running-mate in 1984.

So what does a John Kerry-John Edwards ticket tell you? Forget, for a moment, the obvious attempt at regional balance, or the tactical advantage of adding a skilled campaigner to the ticket. In deeper ways, the selection of Edwards signals the extent to which this campaign will revolve around class - more specifically, which party represents the aspirations, values and economic interests of hard-working middle America.

There is an obvious paradox here; Mr. Edwards is the fourth white male millionaire to join the national tickets. Three of them went to Yale, and two (Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush) are descendants of old and patrician New England families.

But Kevin Phillips, the political historian and Bush critic, notes that there are class differences even among the millionaires. To begin with, as is now widely known, Mr. Edwards is the son of a millworker, the first generation in his family to go to college (and it was not Yale). He made his own fortune, and he did it as a trial lawyer. "Edwards is a member of one of the relatively few professions where you can make a lot of money blasting the avarice of big corporations," Mr. Phillips said.

"Republicans worry about him going up and down the Ohio Valley, and winning over a lot of people just like he won small-town juries in the border states," Mr. Phillips added. (Atticus Finch with an attitude.)

With the help of Mr. Edwards's full-throated economic populism, his up-by-the-bootstraps biography and his case against the "two Americas," Democrats hope to strengthen their connection with white working- and middle-class voters. Mr. Kerry has already laid down some detailed policy prescriptions to ease what he describes as the "middle-class squeeze," from a major program to expand health insurance coverage and hold down its costs, to new assistance with college tuition.

But Mr. Kerry, while he tries hard, does not always connect to the bread-and-butter, regular-guy voters he seeks. (It is an enduring mystery to many Democrats why Mr. Bush, with no less patrician roots, manages to elude the charge of elitism. "It seems like something you could throw at them, but it just doesn't stick," said Senator John Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana.) Democrats are hoping Mr. Edwards adds some empathy and some passion to the policy.

"There is great virtue in the minds of voters to having people in positions of power who at some point in their lives walked in their shoes," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster. "It's a quality that at the moment, people feel is badly lacking in the political process, which people increasingly see as the province of elites."

Another Democratic strategist, who did not want to be identified, described the potential value of the Edwards addition more bluntly: "It makes it a whole lot harder for the Republicans to make the argument that Democrats are elitist liberals cowering on the coasts with their Starbucks coffee and organic milk."

Republicans, for their part, are appealing to those same voters with a kind of cultural populism, asserting that Democrats are flatly out of touch with mainstream, small-town America on issues from "partial birth abortion" to gun control. It is a campaign that proved devastatingly effective four years ago, when Mr. Bush carried the rural and small-town vote by large majorities.

Republicans immediately characterized Mr. Edwards this week as a "disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal and friend to personal injury trial lawyers." They suggested that his "rural populist message" was "just another gimmick."

Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, said of the Democrats, "Their idea of economic populism is more government intervention and more government control, and I'm not sure that's what middle-class voters really want."

A snapshot of this year's presidential tickets reveals more than the complicated politics of economic class. Twenty years after Ms. Ferraro, there are obviously no women on the tickets, and only a few made the Democratic list of mentionables.

Ms. Ferraro herself said the reasons are not hard to find: vice presidential candidates tend to come from governorships, the Senate and the field of presidential candidates themselves, and "not enough women are in those positions."

There are 14 women in the Senate, nine of them Democrats, and nine women governors, five of them Democrats. And one of the biggest stars among Democratic women, Jennifer Granholm, the governor of Michigan, cannot run for president because she was born in Canada.

What worries Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, is not simply that more women are not stepping forward to run for president, but that the pipeline of potential candidates is not filling up. "We're seeing a leveling off, a stagnation, at the state legislative level and a decline in the number of women in statewide office other than governor," she said.

Similarly, the tickets this year are, once again, all white. Representative John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and former civil rights leader, has high praise for the Kerry-Edwards ticket, but added it was "unfortunate" that 40 years after the Voting Rights Act was enacted, there were still no blacks on a national ticket, let alone in the Senate.

But presidential candidates and their tickets are not merely the sum of their demographics. Despite the lack of diversity, these tickets offer four very different American lives - and biography counts in politics. Maybe not as much as it did before the war on terrorism pushed national security to the forefront, but it still counts.

George Bush speaks the language of evangelical, conservative, family-values-oriented America. John Edwards comes from the same Southern tradition that produced Bill Clinton, a master at connecting across lines of class and race. And Mr. Kerry, for his part, is trying to break out of the biographical stereotype Republicans are so eager to preserve - aloof, elite, affluent, liberal Northeasterner.

Last weekend, on his bus tour of the Midwestern small towns, Mr. Kerry shook thousands of hands, hoisted dozens of babies, ate barbecue, did some shooting, listened and smiled and patted backs. At the end of one of his biggest rallies, on a farm in Wisconsin, he joined the band to play the guitar to Woody Guthrie's populist anthem, "This Land Is Your Land." As the sun set behind him, and the largely rural crowd sang along, he was smiling, and he seemed to transcend his demographics, as presidential candidates have to do.