John Edwards, Esq.

Position:Legislators and health issues

Republicans believe that Americans will never elect a trial lawyer president. They're wrong.

ON AUGUST 5TH, NBC's Meet the Press featured someone and something we're likely to see much more of in years to come: Senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) squaring off against a nervous representative of the Bush administration.

The issue in this case was the so-called patients' bill of rights, and Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-G.A.) the Bush surrogate. Days earlier, the president had sweet-talked Norwood into a midnight deal that sharply restricted patients' right to sue their HMOs. Norwood, who for many years had advocated a much tougher bill, had essentially been suckered, and appeared acutely aware of this as he sat alongside Edwards, glumly resigned to defending a bad deal.

Tim Russert was on the attack, pressing Norwood about his recent yielding on patients' rights to sue in state courts: "Why did you abandon those views?" Norwood hemmed and hawed and finally was reduced to parroting the administration's line: "It is potentially possible that [lawsuits] could ruin the employer-based health-care system in the country." Russert pressed him harder. "Do you believe that?" It turned out Norwood did not.

Russert then turned to Edwards, a trial lawyer by profession, who neatly summarized the deal's shortcomings. "Number one, this deal--which was written in the middle of the night, by the way--takes away rights that patients already have across the country," he explained. "Number two, it maintains the privileged special status that HMOs enjoy today. And, number three, it stacks the deck against patients when they're trying to hold HMOs accountable for what they do." Edwards also pointed out that a seemingly minor change in the bill's language had shifted accountability away from HMOs--something Norwood had failed to recognize and meekly agreed was "a mistake."

The discussion turned to caps on the amount of damages that negligent HMOs would face. Norwood had previously fought such caps and again stumbled in rationalizing his reversal. Edwards, who flat-out opposes capping damages, summed up his case in one line: "A right [to sue] that's not enforceable doesn't mean anything." By the time Russert broke for commercial, Norwood had pretty much thrown in the towel.

The fight over precisely how patients should be allowed to sue their HMOs may seem relatively minor, considering that 44 million Americans don't even have health insurance. But the debate that morning had a deeper symbolic meaning. As every political junkie knows, John Edwards almost became Al Gore's running mate in 2000 (several sources say he was next after Joe Lieberman). Among a handful of undeclared candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2004, he's lately been basking in media attention. With Gore's recent inability to reignite support, a case could be made that Edwards is the current frontrunner.

The fight was important on another level, too. For a long time, the two parties have wrestled in various contexts over the right to sue, Democrats generally defending it and Republicans seeking to restrict it. But at least in the public mind this issue hasn't yet risen to a defining philosophical difference like abortion, taxes, or the size of government. Many Republicans would like to change that, President George W. Bush prominent among them. As governor of Texas, Bush made "tort reform" one of his top agenda items. Quietly, in ways that have garnered little attention, the White House is laying out a strategy that in the coming months will seek to make tort reform a defining issue of Bush's presidency.

The pursuit of this agenda will naturally draw Edwards into the spotlight as a defender of the process of litigation in general and of trial lawyers in particular. It will place him center stage in one of the most interesting and useful debates of the next few years. Democrats will have to defend their belief that litigation is ultimately good for America, while convincing voters that this belief doesn't stem from hefty campaign contributions from trial lawyers. As the administration moves forward on tort reform, buoyed by ideology and by polls showing that three out of four Americans dislike lawyers, it will try to paint Democrats as the party of ambulance-chasers and Edwards is their champion, in the process snuffing out a potential challenger to Bush. In fact, that's already begun. "America won't elect John Edwards president for the same reason we've never elected a used car salesman president," declares GOP pollster Frank Luntz. "America hates trial lawyers."

That's the theory, anyway. But as Edwards' performance on Meet the Press suggests, the GOP may have picked the wrong fight against the wrong man.

Talking Chickens

A few weeks later, at "Tar Heel Thursday," his weekly constituent meeting in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Edwards once again showcased the skills that make political consultants swoon. Twenty minutes after he was scheduled to arrive, he strode through the grand, paneled doors in a dark suit and pink tie, walked smiling to the front of the room, and without notes or pretension, summarized the issues he was working on (education and the patients' bill) in a lucidly matter-of-fact manner that didn't once invoke the name of either political party. On this day, he was addressing a group comprised of poultry farmers, home-schoolers, and assorted North Carolinians on late-summer vacations. The intimacy of the small gathering lent it the air of a church social. When he'd finished, Edwards answered all manner of questions-displaying a keen knowledge of everything from chicken prices to military testing to the rights of home-schooling parents--many with good-natured homilies about his experiences as a lawyer in small North Carolina towns. The crowd nodded appreciatively. Edwards finally was stumped by a Durham man who'd heard on talk radio that America had secretly been in a state of emergency since the early days of the Roosevelt administration and was concerned. Without flinching, Edwards spoke warmly (and uncondescendingly) about the importance of a vigilant citizenry, and promised to look into the matter. His tanned features, quick smile, and the reassuring cadence of his mild Southern accent made one feel certain that he would be on the right side of any debate. (It was also tempting to flash back to the second presidential debate-the one in which a burnt-umber Al Gore stiffly tried to appear gentle--and marvel at the thought of Edwards opposite Bush.) By the time Edwards left, the room was positively aglow, and everyone agreed it would be a good thing if he ran for president.

Afterward, Edwards explained that his proclivity for talking to constituents stems naturally from his childhood dream of becoming a lawyer. He came of age at a time when many lawyers were rightly viewed as heroes. They included people like Thurgood Marshall, who used the law to bring down the system of legal segregation in the South, and Ralph Nader, whose lawsuits forced an arrogant auto industry to install seatbelts and airbags, thereby saving thousands of lives. "My idealistic view of lawyers was that they could help people who couldn't help themselves, and couldn't fight for themselves," Edwards says. "Since childhood, I thought that's what being a lawyer was all about. I still think that, by the way. In that sense, the transition to the Senate was a very natural one."

Some time soon, John Edwards must decide whether he wants to continue that transition to the presidency. He has already acquired the bug for travel, endemic in future presidential candidates, which has taken him to Illinois, Florida, and California. In March, he made his first trip to Iowa, site of the first presidential test in 2004. The factors conventionally deemed attractive about his candidacy are easy to list: He is young (47), charismatic, and telegenic, hard-working and exceedingly...

To continue reading