Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 10, 2005
POLITICS: Unhealthy Fixation
Tuesday's fun with the "chicken hawk" argument was, at first blush, about yet another of the stupid arguments you encounter (from Left and from Right) in political debates, an ad hominem that feels good to toss around but makes no logical sense. But this argument is much more than that: it's political hemlock that the Left/liberals/Democrats can't seem to stop imbibing, with catastrophic consequences in the 2004 election. You would hope that they've learned something from that. Let me count the ways:
1. The Wesley Clark Boomlet: One of the problems the Democrats faced, once Howard Dean flamed out, was the absence of meaningful alternatives to John Kerry that anti-Kerry voters could rally around. One reason for that was the time wasted in the fall of 2003 fawning over Wesley Clark, whose only qualification for running was his military experience. The willingness of Democratic pundits, bloggers and (for a time) voters to swoon over Clark's military pedigree was a bad early sign of their confusion of military experience with good ideas on foreign policy. Significantly, some of the biggest Clark boosters in the blogosphere, like Kevin Drum and Mark Kleiman, were the same people who went ga-ga over the "AWOL Bush" story. Coincidence? I think not. They convinced themselves that you could defeat Bush in a foreign policy debate by comparing Clark's distinguished service record to Bush's.
2. The Rise of Michael Moore: Moore had been on the political scene for some time, with his books and movies. But you may recall that his first direct insertion into the campaign came in January 2004 when he endorsed (who else) Wesley Clark and, in the process of his endorsement, called President Bush a "deserter." In retrospect, that was the best opportunity then and there for somebody to smack down Moore and keep the debate focused on things that happened less than 30 years ago. Nobody did; to the contrary, Moore kick-started a blog and media frenzy over the previously dormant AWOL story, setting off, among other things, comments from DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe on the subject. This created a monster, as Moore quickly learned that he could say whatever he wanted and still be embraced by the party's leadership.
3. The Kerry Nomination: Of course, the biggest debacle of all was the decision to nominate John Kerry. I believe, and I doubt too many people would disagree with me on this one, that Kerry would never have won the nomination had it not been for the widespread perception that he could take advantage of the distinction between his own combat record and Bush's military service record. That calculation wound up overcoming a wealth of reasons, well known to many Democrats, why Kerry could be a terrible candidate.
Now, Kerry did have a decent resume at first glance (two decades in the Senate) and did have his strengths as a candidate, notably his startling aggressiveness as a debater. And he didn't get blown out in November. But he did lose a lot of ground Al Gore had held, and as more than a few people pointed out during the primaries as well as later on, he was a sort of Frankenstein's monster of bad candidate traits: in a Senate divided between work horses and show horses, Kerry is a show horse who doesn't show well, a faux populist who's bad with people, an orator who gives deadly dull speeches, a guy who's all image and no substance . . . and his image is as a guy who's dull, condescending, mean, arrogant, and insincere. A glass-jawed bully who picks fights and boasts "bring it on," yet whines when attacked back. He's basically spent thirty years living off youthful exploits that he himself denounced, hiding behind medals he pretended to throw away. And, of course, there was his famous inability to take a clear position and stick to it.
All of this was well known to Democrats. But they overlooked it all in their obsession with proving that Bush was a chicken hawk and Kerry a noble war hero.
4. The Convention: You know the story: the Democratic Convention produced almost no bounce in the polls, and turned out to be a missed opportunity to lay out a coherent message. Why? Does the phrase "reporting for duty" ring a bell? Yet another blind alley, as the Democrats stressed over and over the contrast in Kerry's and Bush's service records at the expense of talking about a winning strategy in the war on terror or even laying out a stronger and more detailed critique of Bush's.
5. The Swift Boat Vets: We knew all along that Kerry would take some heat from Vietnam veterans over his conduct after the war. But nobody had really expected Kerry to suffer such damage from attacks on his service itself. There's no question that those attacks were motivated and given more visibility by the extent to which Kerry sought to play the "I served and you didn't" card.
6. Rathergate: The final way Bush's critics went astray over their obsession with hunting chicken hawks was the fiasco of the 60 Minutes hack job on Bush's National Guard service. Once again, the zeal of Bush critics who had pursued this story for five years overbore their judgment about the credibility of their sources, and led to a humiliating reversal that symbolized, for many voters, the media's mania to get Bush by any means necessary. Worse for the Democrats, the report coincided to a high degree of coordination with attack ads rolled out by McAuliffe. (And I'm leaving out here the roles of Tom Harkin and Max Cleland)
Could Bush have been beaten in 2004? It's a debate that can rage on through political history, but those of us who lived through it, on either side of the fence, certainly thought it was at least possible, and at any rate a stronger race against him might have salvaged some of the down-ticket disasters for the Dems.
Most of us who supported Bush recognized that Kerry's service record compared to Bush's was a positive for Kerry. If the Democrats had left it at that, it would have helped them. But at every turn, the obsession of Bush's critics with the "chicken hawk" argument - the idea that Bush's lack of combat service wasn't just one factor but a disabling fatal flaw for a wartime president - overbore their better judgment about sticking to the issues and the record, and wound up turning a positive into a series of disasters. Will they ever learn? Stay tuned.