Another day. Another lead story and major Kerry ad on the topic of the candidate’s Vietnam record. I continue to think that every day on this topic is probably a bit of a winning day for the Bush team. It is off of the topic of their own performance, it puts Kerry on the defensive and if polls suggest it’s the right thing to do, Bush can always still make a public call for the Swiftboat folks to pipe down (or perhaps he could just blast the very notion of TV ads backed by outside groups).
Meanwhile, Bob Dole likely got to the heart of what really frustrates so many of those who have come out passionately (even if they’re not always supported by historical facts) against the notion of John Kerry as war hero:
“I mean, one day he’s saying that we were shooting civilians, cutting off their ears, cutting off their heads, throwing away his medals or his ribbons. The next day he’s standing there, ‘I want to be president because I’m a Vietnam veteran.’”
Dole managed to get to the heart of the unconscious drive behind this movement only a few days after I did in this post. The thing is, I was trying to analyze the situation using my shrink’s apprentice style of commentary. I think Dole may have let it slip out. Real motivations and visible political actions aren’t supposed to make appearances at the same time and place.
A piece in the Weekly Standard (by way of The Moderate Voice) suggests that the attempt to discredit Kerry is driven in part by the fact that many Republicans are at their core, uncomfortable specifically with Bush and generally with the idea of backing a war avoider over a war hero:
“Yet in 2004, Republicans find themselves supporting a candidate, George W. Bush, with a slender and ambiguous military record against a man whose combat heroism has never (until now) been disputed. Further–and here we’ll let slip a thinly disguised secret–Republicans are supporting a candidate that relatively few of them find personally or politically appealing. This is not the choice Republicans are supposed to be faced with…
“Republicans have no such luck this time, and so they scramble to reassure themselves that they nevertheless are doing the right thing, voting against a war hero. The simplest way to do this is to convince themselves that the war hero isn’t really a war hero. If sufficient doubt about Kerry’s record can be raised, we can vote for Bush without remorse. But the calculations are transparently desperate.”
So what are we left with after these couple weeks of Vietnam political warfare? We’ve got a Democratic candidate spending nearly all of his convention time celebrating his Vietnam record and little else in order to compensate for Republicans’ historic (and wrong) efforts to paint the Democrats as soft on crime, soft on war, soft on terror and for being the kind of people, in general, who tend to squeeze the Charmin.
I think Kerry’s most effective phrase of the entire primary season was when he used to say, “George Bush speaks of strength…” It was subtle and effective. The idea was to explain that verbal bluster does not equal personal or political toughness and that those who display strength in their actions are the real tough guys. For the last several weeks, John Kerry has found himself speaking too much of strength.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are coming off as desperate. The big risk here is that this could all backfire. It might ease the concerns of some in the base, but I find it hard to imagine that the handful of undecideds will react well to this hatchet job. And this isn’t just about some runaway 527s. A glance at their ads, speeches or campaign website makes it clear that the Bush team wants to make this election a referendum on Kerry.
That pretty much tells you all you need to know about the record of the incumbent.
And the voting public? Well, we’re getting reminded that these are dire times and a new era in American life. At the same time, we seem to be getting a constant dose of politics as (or even worse than) usual.