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November 13, 2007

the Swift Boat analogy

There's a powerful storyline beneath the Democratic primary race that goes like this:

1. John Kerry lost the 2004 election because of the Swift Boat Vets attacks, which epitomized a particularly Republican form of nasty politics that is relatively new to politics.
2. Therefore, Democrats should nominate whoever can best handle the swift boat attacks of 2007.
3. And probably, that is the candidate who has the most experience with taking personal hits and dishing them out in return. Thus, for instance Mathew Yglesias on Obama:

There's perhaps no holder of comparable office who's had less experience tangling with the Republican Party [emphasis is Yglesias'] than Barak [sic] Obama. This worries me. Now, on the other hand, it's true that he's a very appealing person in any number of other ways. What I'd like him to see is to find some way to get himself down in the muck--put himself in a position where he's leading some kind of fight and the GOP feels compelled to try to take him down a notch or two.

I'm not expressing a preference for any presidential candidate, but I think the narrative summarized above is all wrong.

1. John Kerry was extremely, almost uniquely, vulnerable to a Swift Boat-style attack because he had no positive vision. He did not explain what he would do about Iraq. He had a health care plan, but he never talked about it. His whole rationale was that he had fought in a war and George Bush had not. He might as well have announced: Let's debate my Vietnam War record and you can vote for G.W. Bush unless you decide that I was a moral and military hero whereas he was a shirker. In reality, anyone's war service will involve elements of ambiguity and complexity. Kerry was simply asking for those elements in his own story to be broadcast.

2. Bitter personal attacks, while they have been conducted effectively by modern Republicans such as Karl Rove, are by no means a GOP monopoly, nor an innovation. Yet strong candidates have often won elections without counter-punching. When an attack comes, it's by no means obvious that the best response is to respond in kind (or to respond at all). I thought that Kerry needed to articulate a reason for electing him. Failing that, he at least needed to reply to the Swift Boat Attack with humor (a powerful political asset) or with dignified personal reflection.

Thus the question for Democratic voters this time is not: Who can dish it out? It's: Who has something else (other than personal flaws) to talk about?

November 13, 2007 10:15 AM | category: none


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