The Great Edwards Miscalculation
sunny, fresh-faced, upbeat, and optimistic. He is supposed to be charming,
smooth, and in touch with the common man. Juxtaposed with the rhetoric of a
month ago, it strikes me that Democrats think that John Edwards is their Ronald
This signals the fundamental misunderstanding the Democrats have of Reagan,
stemming from their reliance on personality instead of character (as
exemplified by their surrender to Bill Clinton.) In the grudging tributes to
Reagan, the other side would readily acknowledge his optimism, but they mistook
it for personality optimism. It was not.
Personality optimism is the empty calorie of the dinner party. It is the charm
for charm's sake that is designed to leave people feeling better without
knowing quite why except that YOU are responsible for it. This is Bill
Clinton. This is what people mean when they compare John Edwards' "optimism" to
Kerry's dour sonorous tones. If Kerry's the type one is terrifying of being
backed into a corner and hearing out, then Edwards is the swooping savior who
will rescue you with a smile and a platitude and the bum's rush to the next
Reagan's optimism, on the other hand, is character optimism. Character optimism
believes that events will improve because of the effort and good will of
people, even if it does not immediately improve attitudes or fortunes.
Expounders of character optimism leave their audience with greater confidence
in themselves and knowing the reason why; people respond with gratitude, not
glamorization, of the prophets of character optimism. This is Ronald Reagan. He
believed the American people were capable of great things and that they would
do them, and he told the American people this. (George W. Bush has it, too.)
This is the Democrats' great miscalculation. They think they will tap into the
desire for optimism that they think defined the response to Reagan's passing by
putting a John Edwards on the ticket. But they think that charm will do the
trick. It will not. Ideas drive character optimism, and the Democrats are fresh
out of those.
John Edwards' trademark speech says it all. His claim is that there are two
Americas, a rich and a poor one. Like you, he says, I was born in the poor one.
But if the two Americas Edwards speaks of were real, he could never have moved
from the lower to the higher. Since the reality claims are false, he depends on
charm to win his audience over, and that will not work in the general election.
(Heck, it didn't even work in the primaries.) Ronald Reagan talked of one
America, the true America, and it is that vision that inspires.
At the end of the day, personality optimists sing, "The sun'll come out
tomorrow." Character optimists assert, "I decline to accept the end of man." In
this post-9/11 world where Western civilization is under attack, only one type
is acceptable. It is the task of George W. Bush and the Republicans to frame
the debate in those terms. I think the American people will respond to that
kind of choice.