The Washington Times

John Edwards may be the best politician of his generation. Never mind what he brings to John Kerry’s campaign for president in 2004. In an astonishingly small number of extraordinarily acute political moves, Mr. Edwards has established himself as the single most likely American to occupy the Oval Office one day [and here I include Mr. Kerry].

George W. Bush was never farther from the mark than when he contemptuously dismissed Mr. Edwards in comparison with his own veep by saying, “Dick Cheney can be president.” Though not quite at the level of his father’s notorious “my dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos,” said of the Clinton-Gore ticket that was about to take him down in 1992, the current incumbent’s remark is similarly inapposite and out of touch. Mr. Bush had better caution himself not to make the mistake that others have previously made to his benefit [and from which he is likely to benefit once again this year], namely, underestimating the opposition. Mr. Edwards is formidable with a capital F.

How exactly is it that you get to be president? The question is, I grant, on one hand ridiculous, in that there is no certain path. It’s something you can set out to do, indeed, something you can spend your whole life pursuing, only to come up empty for reasons entirely out of your control. Nevertheless, the question does make a certain amount of sense when you read backward from the Oval.

Well, you need to win the general election. And in order for that to happen, you need to win the nomination of your party. And in order for that to happen, you need to be sufficiently credible as a candidate to attract support – in the form of party leaders, funders, and ultimately primary and caucus voters. And in order to establish this credibility, you need some noteworthy record of public service, usually including elective political office – though there are rare exceptions, such as Ike.

Now, what is the route to credibility as a candidate? Think back to those who have been regarded widely as credibly having sought their party’s nomination. The usual route is a long political career, which often begins at the bottom with local or state office, then proceeds to office in Washington, usually first in the House and then in the Senate, and often includes an intervening or culminating stint as governor. We are typically talking about a career that includes many elections, over decades – and not all of them necessarily successful.

But what is the shortest conceivable route to credibility? I submit that something like having stood for election only once and having won a seat in the Senate, then running for president so well as to win the vice presidential nomination, ought to about describe it. This is Mr. Edwards’ achievement.

It’s all the more impressive given that he had previously realized that he stood a fairly poor chance of retaining his Senate seat in North Carolina and therefore decided not to seek re-election concurrently. I don’t pretend to know his thinking. I’m just going to assume that he does indeed want to be president some day. Given that, it’s impossible not to credit him with the insight that his best and perhaps only chance was to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, knowing full well that his credibility package going in was almost certainly inadequate to get him the nomination.

The Senate seat is irrelevant to his future ambition. Had Mr. Kerry not selected him as his running mate, Mr. Edwards still would have been plausible as a future Democratic presidential candidate on account of the strength of his showing in 2004. The loss of the Senate seat could end his political career, but his retention of it only would serve as a minor political boost. By getting out of the Senate race early, he also made it easier for the winner to pick him for veep: Control of the Senate does not hinge on an incumbent Mr. Edwards’ ability to hold the North Carolina seat.

But now he will have, at a minimum, a vice presidential run under his belt going forward. If Mr. Kerry wins and wins re-election, Mr. Edwards will have had eight years in which his main job would be to prepare to succeed Mr. Kerry. If Mr. Kerry wins in 2004 but loses in 2008, it won’t be Mr. Edwards’ fault come 2012. If Mr. Kerry loses, Mr. Edwards is a front runner for the nomination in 2008. If Hillary Clinton prevails in either 2008 or 2012, Mr. Edwards can wait out either her defeat or her administration. Sixteen years from now, Mr. Edwards will be 67 years old, will probably look at least 10 years younger and will still potentially be plausible as a nominee thanks to his performance this year [though he’ll probably have to get himself elected governor along the way.]

Sorry, Mr. Bush. Mr. Edwards can be president, all right.