Saturday, August 09, 2008

Not Just Another Sex Scandal

John Edwards' personal problems are bigger news than most political sex scandals for a number of reasons. He made his relationship with his wife a cornerstone of his campaign to be Democratic presidential nominee. They have young children. She is a widely respected and hugely sympathetic figure in the US. She has breast cancer, an illness that attacks a woman's sexuality - worse, she was battling cancer while he had the affair, and the cancer has now been diagnosed as incurable. Edwards may have misused political funds by paying his girlfriend to make a documentary (despite her total lack of expertise) as a ruse to travel with her. He may have fathered a child as a result of the affair. He may have paid people substantial sums of money to help cover up the affair and his paternity (and there will be questions about where that money came from). He may have lied to his wife when he fessed up to the affair and said it was over, sometime before the child was conceived. And the affair shatters a carefully-honed public persona that was a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to obscure his previous image as a sleazeball pretty-boy.

But what makes this story interesting and potentially more important to me is why Edwards entered the presidential race when it now seems clear that he couldn't keep this enormous scandal out of the press. People thought the documentary story was fishy almost from the start, and when his campaign pulled all mention of it, alarm bells went off in newsrooms. From that point on a number of journalists were pretty sure there had been an affair and were actively trying to prove it. Edwards must have known that if nominated as the Democratic candidate he could be exposed and lose the election. He put himself forward when his candidacy could have doomed his party to lose the presidency. Edwards has admitted to narcissism in having the affair, but the scary narcissism is that he ran for Democratic nominee given the powder keg he was sitting on.

I can't believe that narcissism is a complete explanation for why Edwards ran for president. Edwards did two main things in the primaries: he used his high profile as a top-three contender to (1) put forth an anti-poverty agenda and (2) attack Hillary Clinton.

The anti-poverty agenda always struck me as strategic rather than sincere. It gave him a cause that differentiated him from the top two contenders and it allowed him to play up his North Carolina roots, but it was too big a break from his previous policy stance. Just four years before, when Edwards ran for the Democratic presidential nomination and became the vice-presidential nominee, he was much more to the right.

It is unclear why Edwards used his high profile in the primaries to support Barack Obama and trash the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, but there's no question that he did it. During a debate, Edwards made it very clear that Hillary Clinton was one of the "forces of the status quo" when he said, "Everytime [Obama] speaks out for change, everytime I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack. Every single time. And what we have to remember - and this is the overarching issue here, because what we really need in New Hampshire and in future state primaries, is we need an unfiltered debate between the agents of change about how we are going to bring about that change."

I was a Hillary Clinton supporter, and I have never understood how and why she was brought down from solid first place to loser. There were a lot of forces at work, including a sexist culture, but one significant factor was the attacks of John Edwards. This may have been part of a backroom deal to doom her candidacy, or it may have been Edwards playing kingmaker, or he may have just adopted a tactic of knocking off the frontrunner before turning his guns on the next challenger. He didn't seem to want to run for VP again, so his support of Obama doesn't seem to be based on an attempt at a joint ticket. We will probably never know Edwards' motives, but the result was that he was the spoiler in the Democratic primaries.



Anonymous said...

Just to correct a couple of conventional misunderstandings, Yappa; breast cancer attacks more than a woman's sexuality, more importantly it threatens her life. Secondly, breast cancer is not curable, as most oncologists concur. Breast cancer is a chronic disease and can return after all systems look clear. What this means in Ms Edwards' case, is that not only has her cancer returned, but this time there's no treatment that will put her into remission again. Many women are lucky enough to live for years in remission and die probably of something else. Ms. Edwards is not so lucky.


Anonymous said...

Yappa; really, are we back to conspiracy theories about HRC's loss? I don't know if you have ever worked for a politician, I have and to the last one they need to have a 'healthy' ego and need to see themselves as untouchable in order for them to put themselves up for public scrutiny. This is all the more true as the stakes increase.

Edwards was going for the brass ring and convinced himself that the affair was no ones biz. Was that folly, absolutely. Was it hubris to make his loving marriage a cornerstone of the campaign sure. But we have countless examples of US politicians who have demonstrated the same kind of hubris (Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Elliott Spitzer). I know that there are also lots of GOP pols who fit the bill as well. In fact, John McCain had multiple affairs during his first marriage, including an affair with Cindy (his now wife). He even left a disabled wife for a younger, prettier and wealthier model.

Whatever the financial arrangements were, the fact that Hunter didn't have doc experience may be a moot point. I saw the webisodes she shot and I thought they were excellent. I can't say whether 114k is market value for 4 webisodes but in terms of effectiveness I think that they were very effective. In fact, I think it is unfortunate that because of the affair, he was forced to pull them at the beginning of the primary. I doubt they would have won him the race but they may have helped him and kept him in the race longer.

Finally, I don't necessarily think that because he is a philanderer and lied about it that it means his policy positions are not genuine. I would concede that it will make folks question them.

Yappa said...

Hi anonymouses -

Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that breast cancer only affects sexuality, just that that aspect of it makes the affair all the more upsetting. Thanks for the clarification about the prognosis.

To anonymous2 - You're right, I don't really believe there was a grand conspiracy by the DNC to do in Hillary's candidacy, but then we don't know why Edwards decided to be the spoiler, and his candidacy seems all the more bizarre now that we know how irresponsible it was. It's not too crazy to raise questions about it.

As to his anti-poverty agenda, I had formed the opinion long before news of his affair that it was a crass about-face that was designed to give him support during last year's primary season. His infidelity doesn't make me question his policy stances, but his political actions do.

Yappa said...

I forgot to add - If the documentary was so effective, then why did the Edwards campaign try to completely suppress it? Doing so only drew attention to her, so if it was a coverup it had the opposite effect. I looked it up on YouTube and thought it was pretty bad, but I don't know much about PR.

Anonymous said...

Yappa: Edwards was perceived as being rather plastic and more cute than substantive and the webisodes would have helped to dispel those impressions in an accessible way. (granted he may now have proven himself to be shallow, ego-driven, and untrustworthy)

With regards to why they pulled them, I would suggest that Mrs. Edwards might have balked at there usage in the campaign once she found out about the affair (i know i would). That they were pulled did draw attention to them (mainly because they were getting kudos from the blogosphere and netroots so why pull them) but Edwards may have hoped that it would be one of many 'process' stories that disappear in the tumult of a campaign.

I was not an Edwards supporter so I don't know whether his positions were merely political posturing.

His decision to support Obama likely has no relationship to the affair. I am sure that HRC and her team are not happy that he ran (given the big secret) since she might have been able to attract some of his support earlier. I would point out though that HRC was not walkin' a particularly populist walk when she was the early presumptive nominee. So even if Edwards had decided not to run I don't know how likely it would have been that she would have attracted those folks in the early days. Also, a number of his delegates migrated to Obama before Edwards' endorsement.

Yappa said...

Hi again anonymous -

That's a good supposition about why the doc footage was pulled - I hadn't thought that it might have been done for (or even at the demand of) Mrs Edwards, which makes sense.

But other than that, I think you miss my whole point. Why, while sitting on this powder keg, did Edwards get in the race? It would have been disaster if he'd won - the affair was already being rumored and investigated before he announced his candidacy. Had he done well he'd probably have had to drop out anyway.

In my experience, the reason people put their names forward for leader/nominee is for one of a few reasons: to win; to give their political career a boost; or to popularize policy they believe in.

In Edwards' case, none of those seem to apply, and the only thing he achieved was to successfully attack and smash up Hillary Clinton's chances. I think that's worth mentioning.

Anonymous said...

Yappa: to be fair I think you missed my point. I think that Edwards thought he could win. He did have a good foundation with unions and he was the darling of the populist segment of the party. HRC looked like she had a lot of head wind but I think the primary showed she/her campaign took her name advantage for granted and didn't organize a good ground campaign (particularly in the early primary and caucus states).

I think that both the Obama camp and the Edwards camp were looking to run up the delegate numbers in caucus states. The problem for Edwards was that for all his populism he didn't sound and look enough like change (in the face of first AA and first woman nominees with a real chance). His campaign (like HRC's) was out organized on the ground by Obama's team.

In the open primaries Obama was able to mobilize not just traditional dems but was also able to bring in independents and even former republicans. Edwards and HRC were also on the wrong side of the Iraq vote -granted Edwards repudiated his vote - for many in the grassroots that wasn't enough.

For these reasons his campaign was not successful but according to the reports from the folks I know who worked the campaign it was very much a legitimate effort.

So no, I really really really don't think that his run was staged to help Obama. And no, even though I enjoy chatting with you, I don't think your theory is "worth mentioning" if that is an attempt to suggest it is likely or even possible.

Yappa said...

Hi anonymous,

I enjoy chatting with you too. I don't mean that his campaign was "staged"... and there are always multiple motivations. But think of it like this: given that he never went above 5% in the polls (I believe) and was having no success, what was his motivation for staying in the race and using his prominence as one of the remaining three contenders to support Obama and attack Hillary? His effect as a spoiler probably had more to do with his attacks on her than on where his small supply of supporters went after he dropped out.

So part of his reason for staying in the race and attacking her might have been that he wanted to be a kingmaker in the hopes of gaining power or position, or he might have been urged to do it by someone influential in the party who wanted Clinton out, or it might even have involved some collusion with the Obama campaign.

I didn't question it at the time because I didn't realize how dangerous it was for him to stay in the race - by that point rumors were circulating about this affair. Had he not run, or had he dropped out earlier, this scandal would have been much less damaging to him.

Anyway, you were right at the start that my thought process is mostly conspiracy theory. I have suspected since last December that there were some forces behind Hillary's rapid demise that month, and that some of them might be in her own party. She went from frontrunner to demonized very, very quickly. I know it's just politics and it's all bygones, but it would be interesting to know what happened... and while I think campaign strategy is a part of it, it's not the whole or even the main story.

Anonymous said...

Hey Yappa: the Atlantic Monthly has over 150 internal emails from the HRC campaign and they will be e-publishing them all in the next month. I think that we will soon see what the problem with HRC's campaign was - her team.

The Clinton history is that they bring together teams that fight and that are ego-driven. There can be an upside to conflict in that it can generate amazing competition of ideas. There is no upside to a group of ego-driven people.

HRC's campaign and the battle between Penn and Woflson (sp?) is only one example. During their years in the White House they had similar problems. There was an HRC camp that sometimes undermined the Bill camp and always undermined the Gore camp. This tendency is why I could never support her once I saw that she was replicating the same pattern in her own campaign.

I think that no matter how good a candidate she was she was a bad CEO of her own campaign and there ain't no conspiracy required. Also, sometimes really good campaigns just don't win but in this case if someone is looking for fault they don't have to look further than HRC HQ.

Anonymous said...

Yappa: here is an example of what Penn was all about and here is an example of Clinton's poor managerial style -

from (excerpt of Atlantic memo)

Mark Penn, the top campaign strategist for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), advised her to portray Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as having a “limited” connection “to basic American values and culture,” according to a forthcoming article in The Atlantic magazine.

The magazine reports Penn suggested getting much rougher with Obama in a memo on March 30, after her crucial wins in Texas and Ohio: “Does anyone believe that it is possible to win the nomination without, over these next two months, raising all these issues on him? … Won’t a single tape of [the Reverend Jeremiah] Wright going off on America with Obama sitting there be a game ender?”

Atlantic Senior editor Joshua Green writes that major decisions during her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination would be put off for weeks until suddenly Clinton “would erupt, driving her staff to panic and misfire.”

Anonymous said...

Hey Yappa: proof of my analysis? From Newsweek:

When I next saw Rielle weeks later, she told me that she'd been fired by the Edwards campaign. She seemed perfectly cheerful about it, but she proceeded to tell me a tale of woe—how the campaign hadn't understood her, how they'd ruined the Webisodes, how they'd impeded her vision and how Edwards himself had failed to defend her. The chief villain in this saga was Elizabeth Edwards. "Someday," Rielle said, "the truth about her is going to come out."

It also suggests that the webisodes that did make it to the web may not have been good because of Hunter but inspite of her. I thought what made them good was the edit (which she may not have been responsible for) and also the intimacy of the discussion which clearly her relationship with Edwards engendered.

Doc makers and their subjects often develop a strangely intimate (although hopefully not sexual) relationship) so I don't know if I had seen the webisodes prior to the info about the affair, that I would have twig to anything...

Yappa said...

I was looking at some of those emails too. You have to take note of when each was written. Some of the highlighted ones were in March, when it was essentially all over for her, and when her campaign was in a downward spiral. They did a pretty good job for a long time. Around the beginning of December there was a barage of attacks on her from all over the place, many of them completely sexist, and they didn't respond adequately to those attacks (which may have been impossible to do). But nothing can screw up your mental game worse than defeat and the virtual inevitability of future defeat, and whatever they did after Feb 5 should be judged with that in light.

As to Hillary erupting, I have heard that Obama is much moodier and rude to staff than Hillary. In the pressure of a campaign I imagine they all get bitchy and erupt. I think people have a harder time taking anger from a woman than a man.

I read the Newsweek article by the reporter who got to know Rielle while the affair was on. I thought the point of that quote was that Rielle was giving hints of her affair by being bitter about her rival (Elizabeth Edwards).

I agree too that the documentary seems to have been professionally edited. I wouldn't have picked up on the so-called flirting.