On Monday October 13, MSNBC and the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government (KSG) kicked off the series Hardball: Battle for the White House, Live from Harvard with host Chris Matthews and Democratic Presidential candidate Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.
The series, shown live on MSNBC, gives students from the Harvard Community the opportunity to ask questions of the candidates in a one hour television program. Student response has been overwhelming and the IOP Forum was filled to capacity for the first filming. Members of the audience were energized by this unique opportunity and welcomed Matthews’ crew as well as the candidate to campus.
Each subsequent Monday night, the program will feature a different Democratic candidate, all of whom have been invited to participate. So far, four candidates in addition to Edwards have confirmed dates: Senator John Kerry (October 20); Reverend Al Sharpton (October 27);
Representative Dick Gephardt (November 3); and U.S. Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun (November 17). MSNBC expects to add more names to the schedule as additional candidates respond to the invitation.
Edwards, currently the sixth place Democratic candidate in the polls, joined the Senate in 1999. Prior to that, he worked for 20 years as a trial lawyer. Edwards currently stands second in fundraising among the Democratic candidates. His campaign strategy emphasizes his desire to be a “champion for regular people”. Edwards’ wife Elizabeth and daughter Catherine joined him in the audience for the Hardball filming.
During the discussion, Matthews and students probed Edwards on his efforts to contrast his working class upbringing against the more privileged backgrounds of President Bush and several of Edwards’ Democratic opponents. Edwards spoke out with strong criticism of Bush’s tax, education and health care policies, asserting that Bush’s background limits his ability to serve working class Americans. “Because of where (Bush) comes from and how he got to where he is, he doesn’t connect with the people that we’re talking about. He does not understand their lives. He is not about empowering those people.”
Another focus area of the discussion was Edwards’ stance on Iraq. Matthews pushed Edwards to reconcile his vote in favor of going to war in Iraq with his vocal criticism of Bush’s post-war strategy. Edwards focused on his disappointment in what the Bush Administration has done versus what he expected when he cast his vote. “I said – long before the resolution even came to the Senate – that it was critical, number one, that the President have a plan, and number two, that he plan to bring our friends and allies into this process so that we wouldn’t be doing it alone.
Well, he’s done neither of those things.”
HBS student Daniel Simon (OG) had the opportunity to pose a question to Edwards on the air regarding his views on the Bush tax cuts and alternative uses of those funds. Edwards responded by listing several of the tax cuts that he would alter or repeal, and went on to outline incremental tax initiatives he would propose to benefit working class families. Simon was pleased with Edwards’ response. “I think Edwards is an extremely charismatic politician. When he answered my question about repealing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, he seemed really personable while offering a pretty solid answer,” said Simon.
Matthews also questioned Edwards on some lighter topics, including his opinion of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political abilities (“I’m not hopeful”), his stance on the Red Sox vs. the Yankees (Red Sox) and his favorite book (The DaVinci Code). Interestingly, it was within this line of questioning that Edwards struggled the most. When asked what his favorite movie was, Edwards stalled for over a minute, before looking to his wife for help. Simon noted, “His inability to name his favorite movie, or any movie for that matter, made him seem more like a political animal rather than a person.” Edwards was also caught off guard when Matthews recalled a question put to President Bush during the 2000 campaign, to name the world leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, Pakistan and India. Given the choice, Edwards opted not to put himself to the same test.
Student reaction to Edwards’ performance was mixed, but relatively optimistic. Though students were happy with his responses, few were overwhelmed. Krishna Rao (Harvard College ’05) is an undecided voter who felt that the session helped his perception of Edwards. “I thought that he did well. He dodged a few questions, but Chris Matthews is a pretty tough person to deal with. Overall, Edwards was charismatic and had the crowd’s support.” Jody Kelman (Harvard College ’05) echoed the mixed sentiment. “I came in knowing almost nothing about him and was fairly impressed. I wouldn’t necessarily vote for him, but after this I would be more comfortable with the idea of him becoming President.”
The Hardball Battle for the White House series continues tonight with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Hardball is shown live on MSNBC Mondays at 7:00 p.m. HBS students interested in attending future sessions of Hardball: Battle for the White House, Live from Harvard can enter the ticket lottery, which is conducted through the IOP/KSG website: www.iop.harvard.edu/lottery.php.