Smear and Pivot
Bush's Campaign Strategery
August 28, 2004, Sunday Times
Last week, in this space, I crunched the numbers and found that, from the polling so far, this race was John Kerry's to lose unless the dynamic of the election suddenly changed. It appears that the Bush campaign has realized the same thing. And when the Bush family finds itself in difficult political waters, they have a long-established, sure-fire tactic. They find a way to detect their opponent's strongest card and discredit it. They do so using surrogates to keep their patrician hands clean, and they are absolutely not above the vilest of smears. And so last week, they made their move.
Kerry's undoubted strength is his service in Vietnam, his appeal to veterans (a key demographic), and his patriotism as a symbol of his fitness to be commander-in-chief. And so the Bush team went for the jugular. They knew that Vietnam is still a live issue among a certain generation. They knew that there were many Vietnam vets infuriated by the fact that John Kerry became an anti-war activist when he returned from combat duty. And they knew that in most chaotic military encounters, memories are blurred and details sketchy and that the military often gives medals to those who don't quite deserve them and fails to give medals to those who do. And so they decided to use some veterans to attack and discredit John Kerry's war service, to call into question his medals, and to depict him, in the title of the book now hurtling up the charts, as "Unfit to Command."
In some ways, you have to hand it to president Bush. He has cojones. Most politicians who found a cushy domestic out during Vietnam might be leery of attacking the war record of a man who volunteered for duty, took shrapnel, and got Purple Hearts for his courage and heroism. But not Bush. Recall that in 2000, at a very similar juncture in a tight presidential race against John McCain, the Bush campaign also unleashed the hounds against a man who had been imprisoned and tortured at the hands of the Viet Cong. Flyers appeared throughout South Carolina claiming that McCain had a black child, that he was the "fag candidate," that his wife was a drug addict, that his experience under torture had made him unstable, that he had "betrayed" veterans, and on and on. None of this could be traced directly to Bush, but no one was under any illusions. In public, Bush said he honored McCain's service. But his surrogates smeared him relentlessly. And McCain told Bush to his face in a debate that he should be "ashamed" by his campaign tactics.
But shame is not something that comes easily to this president. He had used similar dirt-ball tactics against Ann Richards, the single female governor of Texas whom he defeated. Rumors emerged from East Texas in that race, as CBS News' Dick Meyer recalled last week, that Richards was a lesbian and that she had appointed "avowed homosexuals" to her administration. This year, Bush has played the anti-gay card by backing a constitutional amendment against marriage rights for gays and also the Vietnam card against Kerry. It's a two-fer: the summation of every Bush dirty trick of the past twenty years.
The Bush campaign and its supporters defend themselves as follows. Kerry brought up Vietnam at his convention, they say, thereby legitimizing the attack on his war service. But the book that is at the center of the charges was written months ago, and published by the right-wing house, Regnery. It was hyped by the Drudge Report and mentioned darkly by conservative pundits during the Democratic convention. In other words, this was planned months ago, as soon as it was clear Kerry would be the nominee. The Bushies also say that the ads by the anti-Kerry vets were not coordinated with their campaign. But the lawyer for the group also happens to be a key lawyer for the Bush campaign, and he was forced to resign last week. The bulk of the money came from an old and close friend of Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, and a trustee of former president Bush's presidential library. The "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," in other words, is as connected to the Bush campaign as the mafia is to the waste disposal industry in New Jersey. It's a front by any other name.
The first and most critical ad is also a classic smear. It's a smear because it mentions no facts. It cannot therefore be rebutted. It contains statements by veterans of swift boats in Vietnam that include the following: "John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam." "He is lying about his record." "I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury." "John Kerry lied to get his bronze star ... I know, I was there, I saw what happened." "John Kerry has not been honest." "And he lacks the capacity to lead." "When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry." "John Kerry is no war hero." "He betrayed all his shipmates ... he lied before the Senate."
This is ugly, ugly stuff. Notice no substantiation of any of this is provided in the ad. And although there are some minor discrepancies in the military record - the kind of discrepancies that often emerge in accounts of incidents in wartime - the bulk of the record and the accounts of almost all the men who actually served in the same boat as John Kerry debunk all the claims of the ad. Many of the statements read as if they depict a man who abandoned his comrades, when in fact, he saved at least one life. Many of them use the loaded term "lie" when, of course, the official accounts of Kerry's medals were not written by Kerry but by his superiors. And in the past, many of the men making these very statements had spoken glowingly of Kerry's service. The only real, live "gotcha" in this controversy is that Kerry claimed at one point that he had been in Cambodia at Christmas. He almost certainly wasn't. That's it.
Will it work? Yes, it could. The polls last week showed a sudden tilt in the president's direction. It's small - but the L.A. Times poll showed a Bush lead for the first time this year. Gallup showed a small Bush lead as well. In the polling internals, Bush soared against Kerry on his capacity to be an effective "commander-in-chief" and ability to lead. Veterans shifted measurably toward Bush, who never went to war. Kerry did all he could to rebut the charges and shame the president, but he was helpless under fire. John McCain called on Bush to disown the smear campaign. But why should he? When the polls show that on almost every issue, Kerry has a lead, and that the undecideds are leaning against the incumbent, you have to bring down the challenger. Almost all Bush's ads this year have either been gauzy feel-good ads or brutal attacks on Kerry. In fact, the only thing keeping the Bush campaign alive is the systematic attempt to demolish Kerry.
Bush is smart enough to know that this can backfire. And so next week, in a classic maneuver, he will present a moderate convention that will have "compassion" at its center. He will trot out all the social moderates, including McCain and Giuliani and Schwarzenegger. He will remind voters of 9/11 and the continuing war. And he will be in a far stronger position to do so having slimed his opponent beforehand. Call this strategy: smear and pivot. Get your low-life buddies to trash your rival and then appear above it all at your own convention. It worked for Papa Bush against Dukakis in 1988. It worked for W against Richards and McCain. It could work again against Kerry. But this time, of course, the opposition knows what this strategy is and might very well respond in kind. Everything is now "on the table," one Kerry adviser warned last week. Bush's past sex life? Drug use? Some other nasty smear? Mud-wrestling was never this sleazy. And it's still only August.
© 2004 Andrew Sullivan