30 August, 8 a.m. CDT
As I write this, I am on a small private plane with Gen. Wesley Clark en route to Wilmington, N.C., where Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards will deliver a major foreign policy address.
I was invited to join Clark late last night, and I accepted because I was immediately intrigued by three things. First, that Edwards – not Kerry – would be tapped to speak about foreign policy. Second, that the event would take place in North Carolina. And third, that the Kerry/Edwards campaign would schedule such an important speech to compete with the first day of the Republican National Convention, thereby breaking the tradition of suspending political activity while the opposing party presents its best face to the nation.
I suspect that there is a way to tie these three curious circumstances together. Edwards’ strength is domestic policy, and in fact Kerry selected him as a running-mate in part because he balances Kerry’s expertise in international affairs. Today’s speech may be designed to bolster Edwards’ credentials on national security issues when the nation is at war and needs assurance that the man who is a heartbeat away from the presidency can assume the role of commander-in-chief if necessary.
However, this speech is also being billed as an attack on Bush Administration policies and accomplishments, and the Kerry/Edwards team may have thought it risky and unpresidential to have Kerry deliver the punch as the Republicans gather in New York. So much as Vice President Dick Cheney remained on the campaign trail during the Democratic National Convention, Edwards is stepping into the attack dog role that is often a requirement for the VP nominee.
Related to this is the choice to stage the event in North Carolina. Political experts are not giving the Democrats much chance to win that state, so you expect the Kerry/Edwards campaign to focus its efforts in a swing state instead. But North Carolina is Edwards’ home turf, and his advisors might think they can better justify his unusual offensive by not going into a prime battleground area.
12:30 p.m. EDT
Now I am sitting in a near-empty auditorium after Edwards gave his speech.
When we landed here a couple of hours ago, I realized that this seaside city is where I-40 ends, a little over 900 miles east of Little Rock.
Clark and I were shuttled to the event venue, and we proceeded backstage. He was scheduled to introduce Edwards shortly, so we parted ways. On my way to the auditorium, an Edwards staffer stopped me, and believing I was Clark’s aide, he told me to make sure there was no “swift boat stuff” in the introduction. I guess they have decided to finally let that issue rest.
The setting for the speech was definitely intended to give Edwards gravitas. No town hall format, no cute towheaded kids tugging at his leg, no shirtsleeves rolled up. This was a serious address on a university campus, with a podium, a teleprompter, and American flags.
Clark gave a short but effective talk in introducing Edwards as “a man who knows how to win this war.” Edwards was uncharacteristically sober, measured, and unemotional as he presented a well-organized argument about how a Kerry/Edwards administration would do a better job of waging the war on terror and keeping America safe.
He outlined an approach based on three elements (a strong offense, a strong defense, and strong alliances), and every point was punctuated with the tagline, “This is what we will do. This is what they can’t do and that is a difference.” (The full text is available on johnkerry.com, via a link to Edwards’ speeches.)
With this speech, the Kerry/Edwards campaign is staking its claim to the mantle of strongest and smartest national defender, during a week when Bush and Cheney will no doubt do the same.
3 p.m. CDT
We are back on the plane, about to make our final descent into Little Rock. During the return flight, I asked Clark what he thought of Edwards’ speech. He said it was compelling in that it offered a “big picture view of the issues.”
“What Democrats need to do is get back to the issues that are important to the American people,” he added. I asked if he meant in contrast to the swift boat controversy, and he said yes.
At this point, I turned the conversation to Arkansas. Will the message articulated today resonate with voters there?
“People in Arkansas appreciate the fact that we are at war and we need a winning strategy,” Clark replied. “The current administration doesn’t have one.”
We will find out the reality on the ground soon enough, when we touch down within sight of the familiar part of I-40.