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Monumental Mistake By: Joel Mowbray
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, August 31, 2004

In a move that has puzzled many observers, John Kerry saw the claims by former Swift Boat veterans gaining traction, and he decided to fight fire with… gasoline.

While true that the Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth were sapping Kerry’s numbers among veterans—a little bit because of the ads, but mostly because of media attention surrounding them and the book, Unfit for Command—the issue really was operating around the fringes, on blogs, talk radio, and cable TV news.

Yet Kerry taking direct aim at the ads made the story legitimate headline news.


So for more than a week now, Kerry has been talking about what happened 35 years ago, instead of what he’d like to see happen for the next four years.  And he doesn’t seem to know how to get the discussion back on track.


Thing is, Kerry may be sticking with this debate intentionally, somehow thinking that the longer it drags on, the more he benefits.  Several sources close to the Kerry camp express confidence that they are successfully tying Bush to the veterans’ group.


Perhaps it is a character flaw in the senator from Massachusetts that he has to stay on this issue.  Perhaps he believes that his electability is based on his war record, and not challenging the swift boat veterans would be tantamount to ceding defeat in November.


The greatest mystery, though, is why did the Kerry camp have no blueprint in advance, then wait so long to make the wrong move?


The Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth formed back in May, and at the time made quite clear their plan of attack.  The Kerry campaign had to know John O’Neill’s Unfit for Command was in the pipeline, and the candidate himself has known since 1971 what his detractor thinks of him.


Given that the Kerry campaign knew what was coming, what did the candidate do?  He created a briar patch into which the swift boat veterans could enter.


With Unfit for Command just days away from its launch, Kerry took the stage in Boston and doused himself in self-adulation, reminding viewers no fewer than a dozen times that he was a veteran—complete with references to his “band of brothers” and the boat, my heavens, the boat. 


It was either vanity run amok or unseemly advice followed unquestioningly.  Or maybe some of each.  Either way, Kerry missed a once-in-a-campaign opportunity to frame the contest as a debate on issues where Democrats typically win: education, health care, and helping the downtrodden.


Yes, Kerry needed to hold his own on the war on terror and do his best to at least neutralize the issue.  But what was he thinking?  Everyone knew Kerry was a veteran; it was already the primary backdrop of his candidacy.  


What Kerry did was make his service the essence of his candidacy.  With a book hitting shelves days later, Kerry knowingly painted a target—a HUGE target—on his back.


Even many conservatives—this one included—didn’t pay much attention to O’Neill or his fellow veterans.  Not wanting to be distracted from the “real issues,” one could rationalize ignoring Kerry’s critics as, at best, shaky 35-year-old memories.


But with Kerry responding directly to charges—he told reporters last week, “I still carry the shrapnel in my leg from a wound in Vietnam”—suddenly the attacks took on new salience.  After all, if they were garbage or lies, why would Kerry dignify them with a response?


To the extent he did draw Bush into the fray, the new battle lines also encompassed the issue of 527 groups, such as MoveOn.org.  Common knowledge is that George Soros and other wealthy leftists have vastly outspent conservatives through the McCain-Feingold loophole organizations.  Any attention drawn to that does not help Kerry. 


And now Bush has regained the support of John “ping pong” McCain in seeking legal means to squash such groups.


Kerry could have nipped the entire debacle much earlier by taking a page from Clinton’s book.  Why not make a tearful 60 Minutes appearance?  He could have said that in the fog of war, differences of recollection are understandable, but that he respects all veterans and their service to this great country.  He might have had to sidestep the nasty venom he spewed in portraying American soldiers as rapists and baby killers, but he could have issued some sort of generic apology for the follies of his youth.


The window during which Kerry could have taken the spotlight off the swift boat veterans without directly engaging them has long since closed, however, and each day this controversy swirls, the more Kerry sinks. 


Even if he eventually wins the debate over his record, he loses.


Kerry may have never thought he’d say this, but he must be eager to have the GOP take the stage in NY—and the national spotlight.  Since Kerry is either unwilling or unable to do so, it falls to Bush to pull the debate away from 1969 and bring it to 2004.


Then again, given how out-of-step the most liberal Senator is with the mainstream, President Bush ought to welcome a debate on the issues by borrowing Kerry’s catchphrase: “Bring it on.”

Joel Mowbray is author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America’s Security.

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