Edwards’ new gig:

E.J. Dionne Jr. had an interesting piece on Sen. John Edwards Friday, Jan. 28. He began it by asking a list of what-if’s, upon which, he said, Edwards was “wagering a lot, maybe his whole political future.” Those are: “What if the problem the Democrats face cannot be explained by all the careful calculations of the careful political calculators? What if their 2004 loss was not primarily about losing a few Catholics here and a few married women there? What if the Democrats’ challenge is about passion, not positioning?”

Yes, but what if Edwards is reading the tea leaves incorrectly? The Democrats had plenty of passion in 2004. Anger is passion. Everyone knew what they were passionate against. They lacked something to be passionate for.

That is to say, the Democrats’ problem in 2004 wasn’t passion, but substance.

Throughout the article Edwards and Dionne discussed conservatives’ “conviction politics” with the same gee-wouldn’t-it-be-something wistfulness of a bald man imagining himself with flowing locks. But is there anything in his short political life that suggests Edwards will be the “conviction candidate” in 2008?

What was Edwards’ vision? Name one policy idea associated with the man. You cannot, although perhaps you can remember his “two Americas” boilerplate — or that “message of hope” catchphrase used by seemingly every reporter. “John Edwards brought his trademark message of hope to [insert town name here] on the campaign trail today,” ran the script. “Message of hope” was the message, however; e.g., Edwards told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that his “message of hope and bringing real change to America … has finally broken through.”

That would be like Martin Luther King announcing, “I have a dream today. It is a dream of hope. Hope is my dream. A dream of hope, a dream of hope, thank God Almighty, I have a dream of hope!”

One can recite pablum passionately — and persuasively, too, if the adage is true that there’s a sucker born every minute. According to the latest Census Bureau figures for the U.S., however, about eight people are born every minute. Successfully appealing to suckers can build you a strong niche market, but politicians need majorities.

At some level, Edwards senses that. The Dionne article anticipated last week’s big Edwards news. He now has an issue: the alleviation of poverty. Dionne doesn’t write that Edwards has no idea about how to accomplish it; instead, as he graciously puts it, Edwards is “planning to set up a center to study ways to alleviate poverty.” That would be the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity just announced at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, of which Edwards will be director. (UNC and Edwards were adamant that the new center isn’t about providing a political vehicle for Edwards in 2008. It was mere coincidence, then, that Edwards announced the center’s formation in Manchester, New “First in Presidential Primaries” Hampshire.)

An issue without a plan is an uncertain step up from passion without a message. It’s to be expected of the candidate without a clue. Even concerning “his” issue, Edwards cannot see that his opponents had a winning approach to it.

Edwards “offers the unexpected claim that the very voters who have strayed from the Democrats would respond forcefully to the moral imperative of aiding the poor,” Dionne writes. He quotes Edwards talking about the “deep abiding feeling of moral responsibility” toward the poor that the “people who love their guns and love their faith” have. But he doesn’t seem to realize that those people already have responded forcefully. Edwards interpreted it as merely straying from the Democrats.

In the course of coveting Reagan, Thatcher and Bush’s “conviction politics” and “ideological strength,” Edwards still manages to miss something very important. Bush won the election in part because he has a well-known core conviction, inherited from Reagan, that it is morally imperative to cut taxes and thereby grow society out of poverty. Voters enthusiastically ratified that conviction. It wasn’t straying.

One hopes that if Edwards is serious about studying ways to alleviate poverty, he will study free-market economics and discover for himself the poverty-ridding power of freedom, what Henry Grady Weaver called the “Mainspring of Human Progress.” Let him fathom that, then he too might latch onto the conviction and passion of Reagan, Thatcher and Bush. To the dismay of most Democrats, no doubt.

Otherwise, I fear he will advocate the same old state-driven initiatives ostensibly to end poverty that wind up creating more of it and destroying freedom in the process. As Weaver said, “Most of the major ills of the world have been caused by well-meaning people who ignored the principle of individual freedom, except as applied to themselves, and who were obsessed with fanatical zeal to improve the lot of mankind.”