The New (Old) Rule Book
If anyone needed evidence that John Edwards doesn't intend to play by the rules in this campaign, his decision Thursday to play by the rules should settle the question. If that sounds confusing, read on.
Edwards surprisingly opted back into the public financing system for the presidential nomination battle -- a choice, in essence, to embrace the (old) rules for raising and spending money in the primaries and caucuses.
That public financing system, which sets limits on spending in return for federal matching funds, was breached first by George W. Bush in 2000 and then by Bush, Howard Dean and John Kerry in 2004. All chose not to take matching funds. As a result, big money overwhelmed a system that had been created to keep the financial playing field relatively level.
The changes over the past two election cycles established a new paradigm for presidential campaigns, one that will hound Edwards as he seeks the Democratic nomination. That paradigm asserts that anyone who stays within the system of public financing has committed political suicide if they managed to win the nomination. Therefore, accepting matching funds is seen not as a public-spirited act but an admission of political weakness.
That belief is well grounded, based on what has happened in recently elections. Winning the nomination usually exhausts most of the money a candidate is legally allowed to spend many months before the national conventions, when nominees receive a check from the government for the general election. Bob Dole was short on cash in the spring and summer of 1996 and Al Gore was even more desperate for money in 2000.
For Edwards -- or anyone else who opts to accept federal matching funds -- that means running a campaign from March through August on a few million dollars, while their likely general election opponent is free to raise and spend as much as he or she can. Unless the opponent is John McCain, who seems likely to accept federal funds as well.
The decision by Edwards is based on several assumptions inside his campaign. One is that Hillary Clinton is his only real opponent for the nomination. His advisers no longer believe that Barack Obama is a significant obstacle and they say taking public financing is all about making a clean argument labeling Clinton as the candidate of big money, special interests and the inside-Washington way of doing business.
The Edwards camp is now convinced that Obama has met an insurmountable obstacle on the issue of experience. The Obama campaign obviously believes otherwise, but at this point the Edwards campaign's focus is totally on Clinton, despite the fact that Obama is ahead of Edwards just about everywhere but Iowa.
A second assumption is that the campaign will be won or lost in the first four states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Despite the prodigious amounts of money Clinton and Obama are raising, Edwards's advisers argue that, with the help of matching funds, the former North Carolina senator will have enough to compete adequately in those states. Perhaps.
His rivals scoff at that assertion. Clinton and Obama could spend $15 million to $20 million in Iowa alone. Edwards will be limited to about $1.5 million (although there are plenty of loopholes in the law that legally allow actual spending to be much higher). Edwards believes that the power of message trumps the value of money -- and he can point to the experience of four years ago when he ran well ahead of Dean in Iowa despite being heavily outspent.
Edwards is counting on a blitz through the early states -- victory in Iowa (where he is stronger than in any other state), a finish in New Hampshire solid enough to sustain his momentum, victory in Nevada and victory in South Carolina. At that point, say his advisers, he will be seen as the giant killer, having bested the two celebrity candidates. While Clinton and Obama stockpile resources for a race that will go to Feb. 5 or even beyond, Edwards is counting on effectively bringing it to a end in the month of January.
The third assumption runs counter to the new paradigm. Edwards's advisers argue that whoever becomes the Democratic nominee will face a far different general election environment from that faced by John Kerry in 2004 -- one in which Republicans are disadvantaged.
They already see Republicans raising far less money than in past years -- less overall than the Democrats in this cycle by millions -- and say the Republican nominee will not have such a lopsided advantage as many may assume. They also say that nominee will be carrying the weight of Bush's presidency on his back and will start the general election on the defensive.
Edwards may face a hard sell as he seeks to persuade Democratic voters he has not foolishly handcuffed his campaign by taking federal funds. If he so believes in the system, why did he want until three days before the end of the third quarter -- a quarter in which he is likely to fall farther behind Clinton and Obama in money raised -- to make the announcement?
His advisers acknowledge that he will face an even more difficult challenge in overcoming doubts among Democrats desperate to win back the White House about his capacity to wage a serious campaign between March and September on a few million dollars.
Those advisers speak hopefully about the many new ways in which candidates communicate their messages other than costly television ads; they speak about the power of his message for change; they speak about the ability of the Democratic National Committee to sustain the nominee independently. Democratic voters still may be skeptical.
Edwards may be prepared to go even farther to try to draw Clinton into a debate about the most effective way to change the system. At a minimum, he believes that by abiding by spending limits and taking matching funds, he can force her to explain why, if she believes that public financing of campaigns is best, she is not willing to join him.
When Jerry Brown ran for president in 1992, he ran against the system and imposed a $100-limit on contributions to his campaign. That was seen as a gimmick more than a winning strategy. Edwards will have to show that what he did on Thursday is neither gimmick nor an admission of weakness.
When Edwards revealed his decision on Thursday, I was reminded of something he said during his announcement back in late December. It was that presidential campaigns could be used to effect change long before the candidate entered the Oval Office. More and more, Edwards is running his campaign as if guided by the now and not by the later.
Perhaps that is what has come from the impact of knowing that his wife, Elizabeth, has incurable cancer. Living too far in the future is no longer an option for either of them. If shaking up the system has become underlying motivation of his campaign, then there is no reason to wait to start the shaking.
Washington Post editors
September 28, 2007; 12:34 PM ET
Categories: A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take , John Edwards
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