The John Edwards Test

The Obama campaign and its supporters have been quick to throw around charges of racism when their candidate has been criticized. I propose the following easily-applied thought experiment before evaluating such charges: would Republicans say the same thing about John Edwards?

Edwards is not, of course, precisely identical to Obama, but if you were conducting a test for racial bias and needed a white “tester” to change places with Obama, he’s as good a fit as you’d be likely to find – close to Obama’s age, similar in his level of experience (one undistinguished Senate term, tenuous grasp of national security issues) and accomplishment (close to zero), smooth-talking but challenged in answering tough questions, and drawing his support from a similar ideological base. By far the biggest distinguishing factor between the two men is the color of their skin.

Now, some will argue that this is not the right test, that some attacks that would be fair game against Edwards would not be fair against Obama. But watch for this switch: it’s the point at which Obama supporters have stopped asking for sympathy for their candidate having to carry burdens other candidates wouldn’t face, and instead are asking for immunity from the burdens other candidates must shoulder. And that’s precisely the point at which a lot of people who might sympathize with Obama’s appeals to fairness will instead see that he’s asking to be judged by a different set of rules nobody else gets to play by.

So, applying that test, where does it get you?Obama has complained about McCain harping on the risk of Obama’s inexperience and national security naivete, but certainly Republicans would be arguing that an Edwards presidency would be a huge risk to the nation and its economy (indeed, I challenge you to name a presidential campaign in living memory in which one or both candidates was not accused of being a risky choice, from the 1964 ‘Daisy’ ad to Al Gore’s “risky scheme” rhetoric). Obama is squealing about an ad comparing him to shallow celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, but given that right-wing pundits for years have referred to Edwards as the Breck Girl or the Silky Pony, it’s hard to see why the GOP would forego a similar line of attack. Edwards never matched the pomposity of Obama’s cult of personality, but not for lack of trying; certainly the absurd arrogance of Obama’s declaration that his primary victory would lead to the very tides receding was criticized from the Right on much the same basis as Edwards’ claim that a John Kerry presidency would get Christopher Reeve out of his wheelchair. Edwards’ left-wing lawyer wife was criticized for some of her pronouncements on the trail just as Obama’s left-wing lawyer wife has been, and just as Bill Clinton’s was.

Obama has given the Right opportunities Edwards never did, in terms of his associations with Marxist third parties, crooked political fixers, unrepentant domestic terrorists, Palestinian agitators, and the like. But nobody in their right minds thinks Edwards would have been immune to criticism if he’d had the same circle of friends.

Probably the one exception is the Rev. Wright story. Edwards would certainly have faced intense criticism if he’d had Obama’s sort of longstanding personal relationship with a preacher who howled “God damn America!” and inflamed the sort of racial resentments as Rev. Wright, and that’s true whether it was a racist white preacher or a racist black preacher. But the Wright story is uniquely damaging to Obama because it’s a black man’s black preacher; it’s a story that speaks to white voters’ fears that Obama will be willing to listen to the counsel of those who see fairness and equality as secondary to resentment and payback and score-settling.

I still contend that his association with Rev. Wright is entirely fair game – it’s Obama, after all, who chose this man as a role model and spiritual mentor, who named his book after one of Rev. Wright’s fiery sermons. But at least I can understand why this particular line of attack makes Sen. McCain more nervous than many others, because it undeniably does put Obama in a different place than it would put John Edwards. But in that regard, it is very much unlike any of the criticisms the McCain campaign has actually chosen to deploy.