Is the Swift Boat Battle A Clever Trap?
The Kerry campaign and its supporters are up in arms finally over the forthcoming book, Unfit for Command, and the accompanying ads being run by the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth organization. A week ago when Drudge ran his usual breathless headline featuring the group it appeared as though both the mainstream media and the DNC would elect to ignore or at the least downplay the Swifties attack. This week however something seems to have caught their attention. The consensus is that recent polling data is showing that the ads are having an effect, and a strong retaliation is required to help blunt the barrage before things get out of control.
That retaliation is taking a predictable course: the requisite response ads coupled with the appropriate levels of indignation and outrage in public appearances and press statements. There is also naturally the call for the Presidents campaign to denounce the ads and the complaint filed with the FEC. These are precisely the sorts of responses one would expect from a full court press on the issue. Which brings to my mind two insights, one rather obvious the other perhaps not so much.
Pot, Meet Kettle
The first observation, and certainly the obvious one, is that this is a colossal case of the pot calling the kettle black. We've already had this exact same argument twice when the shoe was on the other foot. The Bush campaign filed FEC complaints against liberal 527s earlier this year, claiming the same coordination that the Kerry camp now accuses them of, when MoveOn and others criticized the Presidents economic record (remember the phrase Worst record since Herbert Hoover?) and his National Guard attendance. The Kerry camp and the DNC naturally disavowed all affiliation with those independent groups and their misleading attack ads. And we all gave them a collective wink and smile, knowing that there is no such thing as a randomly placed ad in a political cycle as hotly contested as this one. Being the good bureaucrats we knew them to be the politicos running the show have found the loopholes we expected them to find in McCain-Feingold, and begun the process of exploitation.
Now dont get me wrong. Im neither surprised nor greatly offended by the actions of either campaign. I think it is a sad and disgusting reality that this is the sort of thing that passes for political process these days, but I was no more outraged about the lefts use of these tactics six months ago than I am of the rights use of them this month. My displeasure at the reality is tempered by my sure knowledge that this was inevitable.
What does raise my ire however is the hollow, whining outrage coming from the television each night on the evening news. The talking heads affect a posture of How dare they?! when they know full well this is simply retaliation in kind. Meddling 527 groups airing derisive attack ads full of half-truths and carefully orchestrated video clips is all fine and well when they are working for the folks I want to win, but not when the other side employs similar tactics.
ITS A TRAP!
Which brings me to the second observation, namely that it appears to me as though the Kerry campaign has just been played like a finely tuned instrument. I could be wrong, but I suspect the Mad Genius at work here, and if so, Camp Kerry may have just walked into a trap.
For evidence I direct your attention first to Exhibit A, the aforementioned polling data. This is the damning evidence (PDF) of the ads impact to which the Kerry Campaign responded. Witness however that the responses to the believability of the claims made in the ads break along predictable lines. Only seven percent of the respondents who currently have a favorable view of John Kerry (which you might recall is 57% of likely voters according to Zogby) said they thought he didnt earn all of his medals from Vietnam. Over two thirds of those same respondents thought the ads claims were not trustworthy.
Moreover, head-to-head polling numbers. have not budged an inch since August 5th when the first Swift Boat Vet ad started running in a few select markets. (According to Democratic sources the ad buy was for 156k dollars in seven small markets.)
In other words for fifteen days, before the Kerry campaign jumped in to defend his record, the ads were reaching a limited audience and having an equally limited effect. Now however thanks to the Sunday Morning political shows and the media frenzy surrounding the dispute, everyone is getting to see the ad. Its running during the nightly news and on the cable talk shows, free of charge.
Which brings us to Exhibit B: The second ad. The Swifties are launching a second ad next week, airing their real beef namely Kerrys anti-war comments upon returning to the states. This ad is guaranteed immediate nationwide exposure in spite of its small target audience in Nevada and New Mexico thanks to the continued media furor over the row. A furor ignited not by the first ad mind you, but by KE04s violent response to it. No sooner does Kerry respond in force, than the second salvo gets loaded into the tube. Curious coincidence or right on queue?
And the payload of this second ad, while appearing less damaging on its surface is actually much more damning in that it will dredge up the very elements of his Vietnam era behavior which Kerry has tried to downplay from the beginning. When Kerry returned to the states from his service he publicly disposed of the very medals which are now in dispute, disavowed both the uniform he wore and the military he served, and embarked on a campaign to malign and discredit the men who were still fighting overseas. Bringing these particular bits of history to the forefront of the debate is the last thing his campaign should want to do, and yet is the very thing they are now facilitating.
Even this however, is simply collateral damage if I am reading the political tea leaves with any degree of accuracy. The real goal of this entire Swift Boat campaign is to provoke a response. We know from the Primary season that John Kerry has a temper, and that he is prone to making very public mistakes on the campaign trail. (cf. The Overzealous Speechwriter and the I voted for it before I voted against it events.) Very early on one of the biggest concerns surrounding his candidacy was that he was not ready for Prime Time. That is the real weakness that this assault is designed to exploit.
To be certain it has a number of accessory benefits:
- It shores up the military vote for the Bush campaign.
- It puts the Kerry campaign on the defensive and gives Bush-Cheney the chance to regain the initiative prior to their convention next month.
- It pushes John Edwards back into the shadows.
- It threatens to turn Kerrys Vietnam service into a question mark rather than a definite advantage.
Most of all though, it provides John Kerry with a golden opportunity to put his foot in his mouth one more time before September.
Whether or not this asymmetrical attack will succeed in accomplishing its ultimate goal is still in question of course. Much will depend on how aware Kerrys handlers are of the real intent, and how much poise and control their candidate can muster over the next two weeks. The initial response however does not bode well for Kerry-Edwards. They appear to be charging headlong into the fray, unaware of the fleet of Star Destroyers lurking just around the planets horizon.
I can just see Karl Rove leaning back in his shadowed chair, steepling his fingers and intoning, Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design! But can Kerry-Edwards count on a whiny Jedi and a resourceful rouge on their side pulling their asses out of the fire in time to avoid destruction? That remains to be seen.