Monday, August 23, 2004

Dole, GOP spray Kerry with potent, adhesive shit 

Now that the latest turn in the story of the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth [sic]" story is unfolding, the nature of the GOP strategy has become clear. The first wave of ads has whipped up a controversy and attracted the media's attention; now the GOP lowers the boom: accusations that Kerry betrayed the troops in Vietnam in his testimony to the Armed Services Committee in 1971.

This will be an extremely powerful accusation. Kerry began his testimony with a litany of alleged war crimes that, according to international organizations, American soldiers had committed in Vietnam. The Swift Boat vets still hate him for this, and they are going to release a new ad that features clips of Kerry's lurid (but, of course, true) accusations, along with their own feelings of betrayal ("I never cut off anyone's ears," etc.). The veterans' feelings of betrayal will resonate, and the new phase of attack will end the debate about the accuracy and provenance of the old ads. Thus Kerry's new attacks on Bush for countenancing the ads will become irrelevant; the new ads will bring forward Kerry's old testimony, which cannot be contested.

The first set of ads will have served their purpose by creating the controversy. The second will foreground aspects of Kerry's testimony from which he has tried to distance himself (he told Russert he regretted the "anger" in his testimony). The GOP has prepared well for this new move. The evidence is Bob Dole's appearance on the scene, suggesting that Kerry apologize for placing 2.5 million Vietnam vets under the label of "war criminal."

None of this had to be very damaging to Kerry, but I am afraid that it will be--because he has played into the hands of the GOP. He has done so first by letting the initial phase of the Swift Boat ads go unanswered, and then, crucially, by responding to the ads in a far too focused and limited way. Kerry has insisted that the ads are untrue, that Bush is behind them, that they should be withdrawn, etc. What he should have done was denounce the ads, declare them false, and then quickly said something like, "But of course this is typical of the Republicans, they are distracting Americans from the issues that matter," and then he should have gone on to make new, powerful, damning attacks on GOP policies--attacks that would have made headlines, and taken the focus off the goddamn Swift Boat ads.

Now the debate about the ads is front and center. But people aren't very interested in a debate about the ads. They may not like them, but they are not interested in following a debate that gets bogged down in the nitty gritty of who did what in which battle, etc. They'll just say, "Both sides are wrong." This response is what Bush wants, because it takes attention away from his own failed policies and keeps Kerry from running an offensive campaign. And, much more importantly, now that Vietnam has become an issue, the GOP is allowed to spend far more time on Kerry's Vietnam years as a whole, and especially Kerry's antiwar testimony.

It was Kerry who screwed up by letting Vietnam be the central issue. It was fine to make a big deal of his heroism, but he focused on it so intensely that he downplayed his other qualifications. Making his heroism the centerpiece of his campaign invited the GOP to make his activities during that whole period, the war and after, a matter for debate. If Kerry had been more aggressive, if he had grabbed the headlines with more potent attacks and proposals, it would have been impossible for Bush to bog him down in Vietnam. But now the key questions--which Kerry spent a large part of the DNC inviting--are, "Are Kerry's service and subsequent antiwar activities admirable? Do you think they qualify him for the Presidency?"

A lot of people will answer "no" because of his congressional testimony, and a lot of people might say that they admire him, but are wondering what Vietnam has to do with the war on terrorism. This last response is the one that is really dangerous: the more of a focus there is on Vietnam controversies, to the exclusion of the Iraq and terror questions and the other questions posed by Bush's failed leadership, the greater the chance that Bush slips into the White House again through the back door.


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