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Insider Interview: John Edwards -- Not Dwelling on 2004

A lot has changed for John Edwards since November 2004 when he and John Kerry were defeated at the ballot box by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Former Sen. John Edwards
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (D) says he's made no decision yet on whether to seek the nomination in 2008. But his travel schedule hints at his plans. Above, Edwards speaks to supporters during a Feb. 25 rally in Iowa City, Iowa. (Associated Press)

Two months after the election, he left the Senate after just one term and returned to his home state of North Carolina where his wife, Elizabeth, began treatment for breast cancer that was detected just after the Kerry-Edwards ticket conceded defeat.

Perhaps the biggest splash Edwards has made since came on Nov. 13, 2005, when The Washington Post printed an essay by the former senator that began, "I was wrong." In it, Edwards detailed why he believed it was a mistake to vote -- as he did in 2002 -- for the use of force resolution against Iraq.

Edwards said that there was no single moment when he decided his vote had been an error; rather, he said, it was a gradual process of realization. "I thought it was important if I was going to try to take the moral high ground and do what I think America needs to do, I had to start from a foundation of truth," Edwards explained in a Feb. 13 interview with The Fix in Washington, D.C.. "And it was something that I felt was the truth and something I needed to say, which is why I did it." (See the post below for video excerpts from that interview or to subscribe to The Fix's new podcast).

If Kerry had been elected president, Edwards said the current policy in Iraq would be vastly different on several fronts. "I would hope that we would begin by telling the truth about how we got there," said Edwards. He added that he and Kerry are in agreement on the "fundamental judgment" that the presence of a large number of American troops in Iraq is "more harmful than helpful."

The remedy to that problem? According to Edwards, it would be the start of a "reduction" in troop levels in Iraq. Edwards does not go as far as many Democrats -- led by Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha -- in calling for an immediate redeployment or pullout of American troops in Iraq. Instead, he said he would begin with the withdrawal 40,000 to 50,000 troops (roughly the equivalent to the number of Guard and Reserve troops currently there, he said), followed by a measured approach to further withdrawals.

Edwards added that he based this idea of partial withdrawals on "some limited conversations" with military leaders, as well as chats with experts on Iraq policy in Washington, D.C., and some of his own reading on the subject.

Edwards's repositioning on the war could well have a political benefit if he decides to run for president in 2008. If, as expected, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is in the race, the most obvious way for a candidate to position himself as the anti-Hillary candidate is to move to her ideological left on the war. Clinton has drawn considerable criticism from party liberals who insist she has not taken a hard line (or high profile) stance against the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

There are other ways that Edwards, who arrived in the Senate in 1998 with an image as a moderate populist, is seeking to carry the mantle for the party's liberal left. Most notably, Edwards has worked relentlessly since leaving the Senate to bring attention to the issue of poverty and its myriad implications. His work on the issue includes a campaign for a raise in the minimum wage -- a major winner among organized labor, an extremely important constituency in the presidential primary process. Edwards said he is working on minimum wage ballot initiatives this November in a number of states, including Ohio, Arizona, Montana and Nevada.

Edwards has traveled the country (and the world) since leaving the Senate to talk about the problem of poverty and its moral implications. And he has brought back stories.

He tells of a trip to India just before last Christmas 2005 when he spent time in the downtrodden areas of Delhi. "I don't know how this could ever be OK, and where is the America that all of us believe in?" Edwards asked. "Where is our leadership?"

He recounted a trip to the devastated Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans earlier this year where he was "startled" to see "how little has been done." He added: "I think New Orleans is just a microcosm for what exists all across the country."

Edwards believes that without leadership from the White House on the poverty issue, nothing will change -- citing what he said was the lagging rebuilding effort along the Gulf Coast as an example. "It will never happen without us up there driving it and, I might add, with real values-based ideas about what we do about it," he said.

Speaking as an expert on a major domestic issue is new for Edwards, who was regularly cast as a political lightweight by his rivals during the 2004 campaign. A presidential bid by a first-term senator who had never held elective office prior to 1998 was seen as too much, too soon by many in the party. Edwards won many of those people over during the primary process by sheer force of personality, emerging as the last man standing against Kerry in the nomination fight. Edwards has lost none of his charm and affability; he is a natural politician.

But he also seems to have acquired a harder edge of wariness and skepticism -- perhaps the result of his trial by fire in 2004. Edwards treads carefully when answering questions about the Bush administration, insisting it be noted that he is spending time talking about the president only because he is being prompted by the interviewer. He also has learned the lesson of unsuccessful candidates who want to stay in the game: Never look back.

Asked to reflect on his 2004 presidential bid, Edwards said simply: "I'm not in the business of going back there." He immediately added: "It's a perfectly fair question but I've now learned it's better to look forward than look back and I am going to stick with that."

Even if he is not willing to discuss the past few years, Edwards has clearly learned several political lessons from both his own presidential bid as well as his spot on the national Democratic ticket.

The largest of those lessons is that no longer being in the Senate is a boon, not a burden to his future ambitions. Edwards said that if there is a downside to not being in the Senate he is yet to find it. He dismissed the "petty fights that go on in this place every day" as immaterial to average peoples' lives and confessed: "To be blunt, I have trouble keeping up with it and most people wouldn't call me a normal person when it comes to politics."

Traveling the country rather than being sequestered in Washington also provides a "better gut feeling for not only what [peoples'] priorities are but also what they're looking for, what they're hungry for," according to Edwards.

Edwards's active travel schedule, which regularly features trips to the crucial early primary and caucus states, also allows him to continue to cultivate the national financial and grassroots network he built during the 2004 campaign. Today Edwards will travel to Chicago for an event urging low-income families to maximize their returns on next month's tax filings. He'll spend three days in New Orleans later in the week with hundreds of college students helping the rebuilding effort, and on Saturday he'll attend a fundraiser in Ankeny, Iowa -- his sixth visit to the state since 2004.

Much of Edwards's financial and political inner circle also remains intact, including Texas attorney Fred Baron, who served as the national finance chairman for Edwards's 2004 primary race, and Nick Baldick, who served as the campaign manager in that contest. Baron is also raising money for Sen. Clinton's 2006 reelection race in New York, but people close to Edwards insist that Baron will be with Edwards in 2008 regardless of who else runs.

Despite all the travel and all the talk in Washington about another presidential bid, Edwards demurred when asked directly whether he will run in 2008.

"I have not decided anything about that," he said. "I'm trying to make sure Elizabeth is well, I'm trying to do everything I can about poverty in this country, and that's where my focus is."

Read the full transcript of Edwards's interview with The Fix. Edwards also was the subject of a Q&A interview in Sunday's Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer.

And see The Fix's first two interviews with potential 2008 presidential candidates: Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 13, 2006; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party , Eye on 2008 , Insider Interview  
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