Crisis in Kerry Camp: How to Suck Wind From Swift Boat Sails

Almost five months ago in this space, I offered some respectful advice to my candidate for President, John Kerry. Here’s the gist of it:

1) Senatoritis: You’re getting hung by your own looping, overly nuanced, ultimately contradictory speechifying. Simple, declarative sentences, please.

2) Michael Moore: Distance yourself from the “grassy knoll” wing of the Democratic Party. The half-truths, omissions and distortions of the “Bush is an idiot” crowd may play to the left and infuriate the right. But they alienate the all-important middle-the crucial 19 undecided voters you need to win this election in Ohio and Florida.

3) Legally, you can’t control the ads bought by the 527 organizations; but as the race tightens and their messages become ever more incendiary, you’re going to be spending your time answering for them. Swat these flies now; with friends like these, you’re not going to need enemies.

So here we are now, in September, and to paraphrase Malcolm X, the chickens have come home to roost.

In the years I spent writing political advertising for Democrats in Boston, my mentors in those dark arts schooled me in the two inviolate rules for winning elections:

First, only amateurs ask whether Candidate X can win; the pros know the real question is whether he-or she-can beat Candidate Y. It’s not so much the office you’re running for that matters, but the candidate you’re running against. Take the full measure of your opponent. Underestimate him-and his resources-at your peril.

Second, elections aren’t run in a vacuum. The laws of physics apply: Every action you take can be expected to bring an equal and opposite reaction. Remember, elections are almost never won on the right or the left, but on the battleground in the middle. Prepare, prepare-and calibrate everything you do accordingly.

So why do I bring this up?

Because the muck and the mud tossed up in the Swift boat controversy was entirely predictable and foreseeable. And to not have anticipated and prepared for it-in the wake of Fahrenheit 9/11 , and the innuendo that George Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks beforehand-is a prime example of what the 9/11 commission called “a failure of imagination.”

(In fact, for the sake of the country, I only wish the Bush administration was as good at prosecuting the war-and trying to find peace-as they are at prosecuting John Kerry.)

But ultimately, this might be the telling difference between the Republicans and my party: When it comes to politics, the Republicans wait for the lethal shot. They play for keeps. Whereas too many members of my party-with the notable exception of James Carville-seem all too content, and all too satisfied, to go to the after-party and savor our vitriol basking in the glow of celebrities.

As I file this Diary from Los Angeles, Calif., on the first day of September, the outcome of the November election in this state has all but been decided.

In all likelihood, John Kerry will win by a substantial margin and take California’s 55 electoral votes-a little over 20 percent of the 270 electoral votes he needs to win.

But what I find so worrisome, and disconcerting-particularly in terms of the rest of the country-is that the Swift boat controversy may ultimately end up being perceived as not so much about Vietnam as about a lack of leadership in the Kerry campaign itself.

What I’m talking about here is the kind of leadership that would have gotten in front of this thing and diffused it, instead of pouring more gasoline on the fire every day.

The kind of leadership that would have recognized that The Daily Show isn’t the place to refute these kinds of scurrilous charges-and would have realized that if you’re going to allow Jon Stewart to ask “Were you or were you not in Cambodia?”, you’d best damn well have an answer.

The kind of leadership that would have understood that sending Max Cleland to Texas would be seen as a stunt; bringing a lawsuit to stop the Swift boats ads would be perceived as weak; using the word “smear” in your advertising-no matter how well it focus-tested-only begs the question of who smeared first.

And instead of splitting hairs over whether George Bush sufficiently condemned the Swift boat ads, I’m talking about exhibiting the kind of leadership that would have seized the initiative: pulling your 527 ads, and challenging the President to do the same.

Whether the problem here lies with John Kerry or his advisors isn’t for me to guess. But Americans-with the exception of the political-operative class -are basically fair. And with the right speech-which John Kerry is uniquely qualified to deliver-I suspect he could undo the damage that’s pushing his numbers down in the polls. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I think it should go something like this:

“Forty-four years ago, during the 1960 Presidential campaign, a young boy asked John Kennedy how he became a war hero. ‘It was an accident,’ he answered. ‘They sank my boat.’

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself humbled by the Vietnam vets in this country. I’m humbled by their passion, their hurt, and the fact that all these years later, we’re still so divided over that war in Southeast Asia.

“When I look back-at what I said and did during those dark days-I see an angry young man who loved his country and fought for it-but was equally determined to stop a war that was ripping our country apart.

“It is now time to heal those wounds. To put this behind us-with the compassion and mercy and wisdom that comes with age.

“Tonight, I say to my band of brothers-not just those who support me, but all the courageous men who fought in Vietnam: Whether you wish me well, or ill, let us all rise up, as one, to become the next Greatest Generation. Let us work together-as Democrat and Republican-to ensure that no future generation is as divided, and set-upon each other, as we were.

“After tonight, I will speak of Vietnam no more. But I will put the Bush administration on notice: I will fight you on the environment, the economy, health care, education and-yes-even the war: For once again, the very future of our country is at stake.”

“As John Kennedy said at the end of his inaugural address: ‘ … with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love.'”

Time is short. November looms. This election is too critical to squander. Crisis in Kerry Camp: How to Suck Wind From Swift Boat Sails