Wealthy Frenchman

Monday, March 26, 2007

Campaign Candor


John and Elizabeth Edwards managed to keep smiling last week as their lives once again took a terrible turn. The former senator talked about the importance of staying tough. Mrs. Edwards, whose breast cancer has metastasized, said, “We’re going to always look for the silver lining.”

The public looked on, wondering what to make of the inexplicable. Fate seems to have toyed with the Edwardses, throwing the cruelest of twists into lives otherwise filled with so much good fortune.

“We’ve been confronted with these kinds of traumas and struggles already in our lives,” Mr. Edwards said, referring to the loss of their 16-year-old son Wade, who was killed in a car accident in 1996, and Mrs. Edwards’s initial fight against the cancer that was discovered at the end of the 2004 campaign.

This latest setback, he said, would not stop his current run for the presidency.

Since presidential campaigns are covered like sporting events, the speculation immediately centered on whether Mrs. Edwards’s illness would harm her husband’s fund-raising ability, or cause him to go up or down in the polls, or in some other way hamper or enhance his ability to compete.

The pack is obsessed with the horse race, which is regrettable. It would be far more constructive and interesting if this heightened attention to Mr. Edwards’s campaign resulted in the media and the public taking a closer look at the issues he has been pushing, not just in the campaign but ever since his unsuccessful run for vice president in 2004.

If that were to happen it could be part of the silver lining that Elizabeth Edwards hopes will emerge from her family’s latest devastating crisis.

The 2008 presidential campaign has gotten an absurdly early start and has drawn staggering amounts of media coverage. The result has largely been the triumph of the trivial: Who said what nasty thing about whom? Who flipped? Who flopped?

Substance is considered boring, and thus less newsworthy. How many people really know, for example, what Mr. Edwards proposes to do about health care?

He has, in fact, put together what is probably the most coherent plan for universal coverage of all the candidates thus far. Among other things, he would require employers to either provide coverage or contribute to a fund that would help individuals purchase private insurance.

He wants to expand Medicaid and CHIP, the successful Children’s Health Insurance Program. And he has said that he would help pay for his initiatives by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 annually.

Mr. Edwards and other candidates have offered many important ideas and proposals, but they tend to get lost in a media environment that focuses obsessively on front-runners. What’s Hillary up to, and where’s Barack? Are Rudy’s kids talking to him yet?

Mr. Edwards is one of the few candidates to talk seriously about ending poverty in the U.S. and fighting the ravages of poverty abroad. He once told me: “I feel passionately about this. We have a moral obligation to do what we can. And we can do a lot more than most people realize.”

A closer look at John Edwards’s views on health care, poverty and other issues would require, of course, a closer look at the positions of the other candidates. What could be better? What’s the sense of having a presidential campaign that takes up the better part of two years if the bulk of that time is spent on foolishness?

Elizabeth Edwards’s illness is a logical catalyst for a national discussion about health care in the U.S. But why stop there? Next year’s election will be one of the most important in history. Whatever you think of their politics, John and Elizabeth Edwards are giving the country a world-class lesson in courage and candor.

You want straight talk? “I was wrong.” That’s what John Edwards said about his vote to authorize the president to go to war in Iraq. “The world desperately needs moral leadership from America,” he said, as he acknowledged his contribution to the debacle, “and the foundation for moral leadership is telling the truth.”

The war goes on, and fate has dealt the Edwards family another devastating blow. The rest of us can help invest the absurdity of their tragedy with meaning by paying closer attention to the issues that are important to them. Whether one ends up agreeing with them or not, it’s a way of opening the door to a more thoughtful, rational way of selecting our presidents.


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