January 31, 2008
Candidate profile: John Edwards
(This profile was written before Edwards' withdrawal)
In 2004, John Edwards lost the Democratic presidential nomination because he was considered a foreign policy lightweight. He won the vice presidential slot because his social policies had depth.
Four years later, Edwards' social and domestic positions remain pretty much the same -- positions that are favored by the vast majority of American Jewish voters.
His foreign policies now have substance, too. That's what worries some Jewish voters.
Off the record, Jewish organizational leaders say they are alarmed by Edwards' about-face on Iran.
In January 2007, the former North Carolina senator spoke via videocast to the Herzliya Conference, the annual gathering of top Israeli and U.S. foreign policy specialists.
"For years, the U.S. hasn't done enough to deal with what I have seen as a threat from Iran," Edwards told the conference, known to be top heavy with neoconservatives. "To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep ALL options on the table. Let me reiterate -- ALL options must remain on the table."
Such views were not inconsistent with mainstream candidates in both parties. No serious candidate favors attacking Iran in the near future. Rudy Giulani, the former New York mayor, has even distanced himself from advisers who favor a short-term attack.
However, neither did any major candidate at the time want to remove the military option from the menu.
Still, Edwards' remarks set off a firestorm on the Democratic Party's left, particularly among bloggers. This was just the element of the party base Edwards was cultivating with his "two Americas" domestic policy rhetoric on poverty; he could not afford to lose them on foreign policy.
Two weeks later Edwards told the American Prospect, a liberal monthly, that attacking Iran "would have very bad consequences." He went on to elaborate: "It would be foolish for any American president to ever take any option off the table." But above all, he favored direct negotiations with Iran.
"I think that we have lots of opportunities," he said. "We're not negotiating with them directly."
Edwards' stance is anathema to much of the pro-Israel establishment, which views direct negotiations as a means for Iran to buy time and develop a nuclear weapons program.
He has not retreated from that stance, taking hard shots at U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in recent months for joining a nonbinding resolution calling for terrorist group sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
President Bush ultimately imposed the sanctions by executive order. Clinton and others noted the alleged involvement of the group in training insurgents in Iraq and terrorists in Lebanon.
Critics said it marked the first time a statutory military corps had been declared "terrorist" and saw it as a way for the Bush administration to create an excuse to attack Iran.
In an American Jewish Committee poll taken in November, Edwards scored 38 percent in approval ratings, in a dead heat for third with Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Clinton led with 53 percent, followed by Giuliani at 41 percent.
It probably didn't help that Edwards' campaign chairman is David Bonior, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Michigan who at times was a tough critic of Israel's settlement policies. Shortly after announcing the choice in late 2006, Bonior sent out feelers to top pro-Israel donors assuring them that his focus was not foreign policy.
In March 2006, at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, the candidate had cultivated just that establishment.
"For years I have argued that the United States has not been doing enough to deal with the growing threat in Iran," Edwards said at that AIPAC parley. "While we've talked about the dangers of nuclear terrorism, we've largely stood on the sidelines as the problems got worse."
Significantly, he included his "two Americas" pitch on poverty in the same speech -- a curious pitch to a crowd that is all foreign policy all the time.
Or maybe not so curious: No American sub-electorate, save perhaps for blacks, is as attuned to Edwards on domestic policy as is the Jewish community. The tough talk on Iran and on poverty drew applause at the AIPAC confab.
Edwards strongly favors universal, mandatory health care and expanding tax credits for child care and higher education -- issues that resonate with domestic Jewish lobbyists in Washington.
He has drawn strong Jewish support; his top fund-raiser is Fred Baron of Texas, like Edwards, a prominent trial lawyer.
No one talks the talk like Edwards, said Marc Stanley, a prominent Edwards backer and the vice chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
"It's disgusting that we live in a prosperous and healthy country and we have more than 40 million people without health care and 37 million in poverty," Stanley told JTA at the NJDC candidates' forum in April. "For me, John Edwards brings clarity on those issues."
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