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Buzz over senator doesn't go deep

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002

Political reporters find a "fresh face" more irresistible than a "fresh idea" in presidential politics. They've already found a rising star -- not just a fresh face but a pretty face -- two years out from the 2004 election. He is Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat serving his first term in the U.S. Senate. Edwards, a former trial lawyer who made his fortune suing doctors and health care organizations for malpractice, has some Democrats and reporters in a swoon. He's not exactly the man from Hope, but he has a biography for other Democrats to envy: His father worked in textile mills (as a supervisor), and his mother's last job was in the post office; the senator was the first member of his family to go to college. He also has sex appeal -- People magazine called him the nation's "sexiest" politician.

This 48-year-old freshman senator is already testing his presidential prospects in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida and other key states. He is ambitious and charming and he can raise big money, especially among trial lawyers. Roll Call, a newspaper that keeps track of Congress and politics, reported that 86 percent of the money Edwards has raised has come from trial lawyers, their employees and family members.

I got my first close look at Edwards on NBC's Meet the Press recently. I'm not sure why host Tim Russert had him on the program. Edwards had little to say and said it poorly. He was slipping and sliding, spinning and sputtering. He was short on straight answers and said nothing to distinguish himself from any of the other Democratic presidential aspirants.

Asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Edwards said: "My belief is the very existence of Israel is being threatened today. I think we have to think about the long-term goals we want to accomplish. First of all, we want to make sure Israel is secure. We want to make sure the region is stable."

So far, so good.

Then Russert asked him if he would urge Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to stop building settlements in the West Bank?

Edwards: "I think our role in this is to stay engaged, to offer ideas . . . I don't think our responsibility is to make demands on a sovereign nation, particularly an old, deep, passionate ally like Israel."

This sounds like a "please, pretty please" foreign policy -- no demands, only requests.

Russert: Do you think it was appropriate for President Bush to tell Ariel Sharon to stop the military incursion?

Edwards: "No. From my perspective, I think it's a mistake for us to make demands . . . I think it's fine for us to suggest things."

A few minutes later, Russert asked the senator an obvious question: "If you did not urge Ariel Sharon to stop his military incursion, did not urge Israel to give up some settlements, how would you ever achieve long-term peace in the Middle East, if you simply stepped back and embraced Israel 100 percent?"

Edwards: "I'm not suggesting that we step back and embrace Israel 100 percent. But the reality is that these parties, with our help, with our involvement, with our continuing to pressure moderate Arab states in the area to be involved, to be engaged, to provide support -- I mean, there's a lot of dispute and a lot of discussion, you know, about what's happening on the street in the Arab world. Everyone knows that one of the most critical things, in order for us to sort of lower the resentment, lower the feelings that people on the street in the Arab world have about our country, is to try to resolve what's happening between Israel and Palestine. I think the bottom line is, America needs to be there, to be involved."

Edwards was unwilling to utter a word of criticism of the Sharon government. It's not clear what concessions, if any, he would press Israel to make at the negotiating table, or what, if anything, he would offer to the Palestinians.

When Russert changed the subject to domestic issues, Edwards seemed relieved. The senator talked about the need to return the government to "fiscal discipline" and create an "environment for prosperity." At one point he said, "I believe deeply in prosperity." Well, that's certainly good to know.

Russert pointed out that both the White House and Senate Democrats have offered budgets that would dip into Social Security reserves for the rest of this decade. He asked the senator: "Specifically, what program would you cut, what taxes would you raise to avoid tapping the Social Security surplus."

Edwards said the first thing he would do is vote against a Republican plan to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Later he said he would support making the tax cuts permanent for about 90 percent of taxpayers.

Russert: "Let me show you a plan that has been proposed by a colleague of yours, Sen. Ted Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts. And this is interesting. He said 80 percent of taxpayers, those who make up to $72,000, get to keep the entire tax cut, 100 percent. The next 15 percent, those who make between $72,000 and $147,000 would keep 99 percent of the tax cut. They lose about $17. The next four percent, who make between $147,000 and $373,000, would keep 87 percent of the tax cut. They lose about $432. And the top 1 percent of income earners in the country, who who make $373,000 or more, would only keep 19 percent of the tax cut. They'd lose about $42,000. Could you support that plan?

Edwards: "I don't support that plan. But what I would support is making the tax cut permanent for about 90 percent of Americans."

Even Kennedy would allow the richest 1 percent to keep some of their tax cuts. The way I see it, John Edwards positioned himself to the left of Ted Kennedy on tax cuts. I wonder if that's what he meant to do. Maybe he was just confused. I certainly was.

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