Sweet Surrender: When Candidates Pull Out

01/31/2008 07:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's happened again. You couldn't miss it. John Edwards appears before a small crowd back in New Orleans where he began his presidential campaign and withdraws from the race. And, as if released from a puppeteer's string, his right hand is no longer jabbing the air. In addition, his fingers no longer look as if they are gripping a four-seam fastball. Free of these affectations, components of an always-inadvisable homage to John F. Kennedy, Edwards is able to use his arms to lean comfortably on the podium - such a small thing, but it seems to deliver him to connectivity. He delivers his words with inflections entirely absent over the past year. It is, quite simply, a miraculous transformation and allows his concern for the "voiceless" - this "cause of my life" which always rang hollow because it seemed plucked from a multiple-choice playbook, the same playbook that contained the jabbing hand - to ring honest and true.

This is not the first time a Democratic candidate has found his mojo only after leaving the race. Examples include the vanquished Ted Kennedy delivering his "the dream shall never die" speech at the Democratic Convention in 1980 and Bill Bradley's quite personable, almost elegant address at the convention in 2000. More importantly, there are the candidates who won the nomination, but lost in the general election. Fritz Mondale in '84 and Michael Dukakis in '88, both men completely ill at ease for the entirety of their campaigns, but both holding press conferences the day after being trounced that were downright touchy-feely. And finally, the most frustrating example, Al Gore's concession chat with the nation after the Supreme Court decision. Humorous, human, no confusion as to whether to wear a flannel shirt or a tube top. Here was a guy you'd have a beer with even if it was just a quick one. If Fritz, Mike and Al could have spoken with conviction driven by empathy instead of by ambition on the days leading up to Election Day rather than on the day after, by now we'd be living in a Communist country.

But this pattern - call it "Presidential Campaign Withdrawal Syndrome" - is about more than physical affect or being obsessed by the prize. It speaks to the timid campaign manual of the Democratic Party's standard bearers in not just how they talk, but what they say. What is the intersection of the two? Do these candidates lose their way because of the natural discomfort of being relentlessly observed, examined and prodded, evidenced this week by a possible snub that was kept alive for more news cycles than the Enron scandal?

Or, is it in some part the result of refusing to espouse the positions you once believed in, back before focus groups, poll data and triangulating made you faint of heart. Before, as the Colonel said in "Meet John Doe," the "the hee-lots" got you. Would Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton like to say, "I support the national gun licensing plan and, if elected president, I will use the 'bully pulpit' to campaign for it, regardless of the NRA's chokehold on legislators," instead of, respectively, "Yes, I've backed off that" and "I don't think we can get that done"? Hold your tongue long enough and you forget how to speak.

Are there some left of center views that would put Obama and Clinton outside the mainstream of the Democratic Party? Yes. Views that would be unacceptable to the powers that be? Absolutely. But just for arguments sake, where would the Democratic Party be if it climbed out on a limb. It's more than just the noble idea of a leader rousing the citizenry. It might be a winning strategy. Be the "Massachusetts Liberal" in advance of being called one. A possibly counter-intuitive plan of leading with your weaknesses to pre-empt the Swift Boating to come.

And, the courage to speak of unpopular positions would give a candidate bona fides whether the original position is agreed with or not. "Did he really say that about this? Well, than he must be serious when he says this about that." It's what has worked for John McCain. For the most part he has put the Straight Talk Express up on cinderblocks, but even the memory of his obstreperousness continues to warm hearts. "Well, I don't agree with him, but at least I know where he stands." "Well sure," you answer, "but you could say the same for Mussolini." But to no avail. Or Mike Huckabee. Here's a guy who speaks of his concern for the little guy and you believe him because he's so sincere about his appalling lack of concern for women, non-theists or the gay guy.

Of course, with the White House so tantalizingly within reach, maybe this year it would be best to stick with the usual plan of only going with what's safe. After all, it's a time-tested losing strategy.