Choice of Edwards no nod to business

Business Reaction

Election 2004 : The Democratic Ticket

July 07, 2004|By Paul Adams and M. William Salganik | Paul Adams and M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

Perhaps the only thing that riles big business more than a trial lawyer is a populist politician who wants to curb free trade.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is both. So it's no surprise that his selection as Sen. John Kerry's running mate for president of the United States is already provoking a visceral response from business leaders who have long spoken in favor of tort reform and the kind of unfettered trade that Edwards blames for sending jobs overseas.

"The selection of a trial lawyer as running mate is huge to the business community's thinking," said Darren McKinney, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, which favors legal reforms that would limit jury awards.

Beyond legal reform, McKinney characterized Edwards' rhetoric on the campaign trail as "protectionist" on trade issues, which is a red flag to many in the business community.

In a further sign of things to come, Tom Donohue, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, bluntly told The Wall Street Journal that if Edwards was the vice presidential nominee, the chamber would abandon its tradition of neutrality in presidential elections and dedicate itself to defeating Kerry in November's election. The chamber subsequently declined to comment after Edwards' selection became public yesterday.

To many political analysts, it's obvious Kerry's choice wasn't a nod to the rabidly pro-business camp.

"He [Edwards] is certainly not an olive branch to the business community, large or small," said Roger Porter, professor of government and business at Harvard University and a former economic adviser to presidents Ford, Reagan and the first President Bush.

But for all the bluster, political and business analysts say, the business community's outrage will have little impact on the election. The same business leaders who are horrified at the notion of a trial lawyer in the White House almost certainly never planned to vote for Kerry anyway.

And they most likely would have found fault with any Kerry running mate. For example, Rep. Richard Gephardt, a rival to Edwards for the vice presidential nomination, voted with the National Association of Manufacturers on legislative issues 5 percent of the time compared with Edwards' 6 percent.

"I don't know that Edwards is any better or worse suited for the business community than any of the other possibilities," said Kenneth Dautrich, director of Center for Survey Research and Analysis at University of Connecticut. "The fact that he's a trial lawyer will give them certain pieces of ammunition. ... But if it had been Gephardt, they would have a different piece of ammunition to talk about.

"I think for those who are rabidly free-trade and tort-reform, this will only highlight their opposition to the Kerry ticket," said Michael D. Lord, professor of management at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "But they weren't going to support the Kerry/Edwards ticket anyway."

Bush campaign officials and Republican strategists predicted yesterday that the choice of Edwards would energize Republican business donors, who have disappointed the party by remaining on the sidelines so far this year.

"This will bring the business community off the bench for the Republicans," said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, "because of their fear of having a trial lawyer a heartbeat from the presidency."

Lord and other analysts said that, despite Edwards' populist rhetoric on the campaign trail during the primaries, a Kerry administration with Edwards at No. 2 would almost certainly hew to the Clinton/Gore economic model, which many considered to be moderately pro-business.

"In the end, the Clinton administration was actually very free-trade," he said.

On the campaign trail, Edwards, who became a multimillionaire after a 20-year career as a trial lawyer, talks about his humble beginnings as the genesis for his advocacy for "regular people." His parents worked in the textile industry, which has been devastated by overseas competitors.

But analysts point out that campaign rhetoric often doesn't turn into policy. Bush, for example, was elected as a free-trade advocate, but later imposed tariffs to protect the U.S. steel industry and signed a farm bill that includes generous subsidies for farmers.

Kerry tends to be moderate on trade issues, putting him at odds with Edwards' more protectionist stance. But that may be by design, said Colleen Shogan, an expert on the American presidency and a professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University.

Kerry's selection of Edwards was likely an appeal to voters in battleground Midwest states, where the outsourcing of jobs overseas has been a hot political issue. Edwards could put Kerry over the top among those voters.

"This will play well in areas like Ohio and Pennsylvania," Shogan said.

While trade and other issues might be important to business and to voters generally, much of the political heat may be generated by the trial lawyer label.

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