As I Please

Commentary by Tom Gregg       September 24, 2004

A Theory of the Election

As John F. Kerry began to sink in the polls, various pundits opined that the Kerry campaign’s whole “theory of the election” was wrong.

What they meant was this: Just before the Democratic convention, Team Kerry concluded that America had already made up its mind to dump George W. Bush. Thus Kerry’s task was simply to present himself as the acceptable alternative to an unpopular incumbent. The stage management of the convention and the strategy of the campaign were planned accordingly.

Then it turned out that the country had not made up its mind at all, and that the challenger would have to do a whole lot more than pose as an okay replacement for George W. Bush. Team Kerry found itself with no strategy, no message and no clue. So say the pundits.

As far as it goes, this is a perfectly valid analysis. There’s no doubt that Team Kerry called the wrong play at a pivotal point in the campaign. But hold on. The pundits have also been saying that President Bush is a vulnerable candidate. They note that from Iraq to the economy, the field of political battle is littered with landmines that could blow the incumbent’s hopes of reelection to smithereens. If that’s the case, why couldn’t Kerry bounce back with a revised strategy? Is this not a target-rich environment for a feisty challenger?

Well, maybe. But this election isn’t really about the economy, Social Security, healthcare, education, “the shrinking middle class,” etc., etc. It’s about war and peace, which is the one set of issues on which John F. Kerry seems incapable of finding his voice.

Speaking of theories of the election, here’s another one that the Democrats got wrong. Aware of their lame credentials in the area of national security, they fondly imagined that by nominating a decorated Vietnam veteran, they could inoculate themselves against charges of being the party of umbrella-toting appeasers. Compared to a man who holds the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts, Bush and his Texas Air National Guard stint would look pretty pathetic. So theorized the Democrats.

But Kerry is the kind of Vietnam veteran that only umbrella-toting appeasers could love. Whatever one might think of his four-month tour of duty in Vietnam, his behavior after returning home is hard to square with the claim that he’s a hawk who'd be tough on America’s enemies.

Back in 1971, Kerry charged—in public, televised testimony before a committee of the United States Senate—that US troops in Vietnam were committing horrific atrocities and war crimes on a daily basis. He told the senators that these mass killings, rapes, tortures, mutilations, etc., were being carried out with the full knowledge and approval of senior military commanders. He professed himself ashamed of his own Vietnam service. He threw away the medals he’d been awarded (well, not really). He traveled to Paris, where he met with representatives of North Vietnam. He became one of the stars of the antiwar movement. Of course, almost every word he uttered about Vietnam was a distortion or a lie, but his line of patter certainly played well with the left-leaning activists who then represented the future of the Democratic Party and today comprise its base.

In the process of obtaining his progressive seal of approval, John F. Kerry may have done more than any other single person to saddle Vietnam veterans with the negative image that has dogged them for more than thirty years. The portrait he painted of the Vietnam vet—murderous, brutal, drug addicted, maladjusted, mentally unbalanced—amounted to an outrageous slur on those men and their service. In reality, most veterans of the Vietnam War went on to lead normal, productive lives. Some even became US senators. But many of them have never forgiven Kerry for what he said in 1971.

So Kerry’s “band of brothers,” that big battalion of fellow vets who would help to propel him into the White House, never reported for duty. Instead we got Swift Boat Veterans for Truth—a bunch of rotten, lying bastards according to Democrats, who quickly forgot how much they admire decorated Vietnam veterans when some of them started saying beastly things about John F. Kerry.

The Swifties’ assault on Kerry’s war and antiwar records undoubtedly did him some damage, but even that doesn’t explain why his candidacy is floundering. Democrats seem perplexed by what has happened since the conventions adjourned. How could Bush be ahead of their guy in the home stretch? Kerry is a decorated Vietnam veteran, for God’s sake! He's a hero! When he compares Iraq to Vietnam, people should believe him!

Ah, yes, the comparison of Iraq to Vietnam. That’s the real problem for Team Kerry.

That Democratic Party base—incurably dovish, in love with the UN, obsessed with France—certainly recognized the advantages of Kerry’s medals, but what truly won their hearts were his antiwar credentials. For three years, the left-wing progressives who run the party have been connecting the dots between Vietnam and the war on terrorism. And when Bush green-lighted the invasion of Iraq, hurrah! Suddenly it was 1968 all over again and all they were saaaaying, was give peace a chance. . .

The base convinced itself that a few shouts of “Quagmire!” and a few dozen body bags would summon up the ghost of Vietnam in the service of their party’s candidate. But it didn't work out that way. Back in 1968, when a supporters of the Vietnam War claimed that it was necessary to fight the Commies over there so we wouldn’t have to fight them over here, sophisticated people rolled their eyes. Today, when George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld tells us that we must fight the terrorists in Iraq so we won’t have to fight them here at home, even a sophisticate can't help recalling September 11, 2001.

That’s where Team Kerry’s “theory of the election” really went wrong.

Copyright © 2004 by Thomas M. Gregg