WASHINGTON — Say this for the Bush campaign: It casts a wide web. It's only been a week, but its litany of criticisms concerning John Edwards is well known. He's a trial lawyer. He's too inexperienced. He's too smooth. And the wonderfully weird: He's too good-looking.
Too good-looking? That's a bit like being too rich, which, of course, is another problem the Bush folks have with Mr. Edwards. If only John Kerry had chosen a poor, ugly, seasoned political pro who had a long voting history to pick apart and who couldn't speak well. Man, that guy would have been great.
When all is said and done, the only critique that will probably have any staying power is that Edwards is too inexperienced. And even that one will probably disintegrate. The senator from North Carolina is too camera savvy and speaks too thoughtfully to be branded another Dan Quayle.
But beyond all the critiques, which are standard issue when you throw fresh meat into a campaign, there is a lot of concern coming from Republicans. Many sensed all along that Edwards was the right pick for Senator Kerry. And not because of the traditional elements of the great balance game. Any balance that Edwards brings geographically or politically will probably be of minimum impact.
Edwards was the right choice because of the themes he discusses and represents. His addition to the ticket may allow the Democrats to steal many of the subplots of the 2004 election. And the subplots may be crucial in this campaign.
The main theme for the 2004 campaign will almost certainly be "the war on terrorism"/Iraq. News, past and present, will dictate that much. But it is not exactly clear how that issue will play in the coming months. Events have, in a sense, overtaken the issue. It is too complicated and too fluid to know where it is heading or if it will offer either side a decisive advantage. And on the other issues that bubble just under the surface, Edwards can be a force.
His "Two Americas" speech was so popular during the primary campaign because he was onto something big. The economy may be improving, but slowly, and the problems Edwards talks about go beyond the latest job growth numbers or the Dow's performance or gross domestic product.
The last 20 years have brought structural changes to the US economy that have fundamentally altered the way working-class and middle-class people live. The bargain the nation once had with the working class - work hard and you will at least be able to live a decent life - is being chipped away.
Well-paying low-skill jobs are disappearing. The president may want to say that pointing this out is being pessimistic. But it is more accurate to say that it is drawing attention to a fact. And Edwards's background, along with his oratory gifts, allow him to make this case better than Kerry ever could.
Even Edwards's experience as a trial lawyer, normally a favorite target for Republicans, may be seen as something of a strength in the age of corporate malfeasance. It is much harder to get people angry about "out of control" settlements against corporations when those people are angry with companies that cheated the system. And every time Republicans say "trial lawyer" you can bet Democrats will answer with "Enron."
The real question for Kerry and Edwards, however, isn't one of politics or style or experience or cuteness - it is a question of actions.
The subplots that Edwards talks about are important, and discussing them might even tip a few close states the way of the Kerry-Edwards ticket. But they are also deeply rooted and problematic. Fixing them will take more than words. It will take serious ideas - on everything from education to healthcare to pensions - and hard work. It will also, one would imagine, require some federal money. Where will it come from with $500 billion in deficits looming?
Sometime in the next few months, the two Johns will have to get beyond talking about the problems to talking more specifically about answers. Kerry has provided some ideas on healthcare, but much remains unclear.
One of the biggest Bush camp criticisms to come out in the last week about Kerry's selection of Edwards is that it was all about politics. This is, of course, a phony critique. All vice presidential selections are about politics, even - gasp - Bush's selection of Dick Cheney in 2000. The key to any vice presidential selection, however, is that it ends up being about more than just politics. Before November that's what Kerry and Edwards have to prove.