Posted on August 30, 2004 in Washington Watch

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Democrats expected that their presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, would have a very different August. The plan was for Kerry and his running mate Senator John Edwards to leave the Democratic Convention and embark on a week-long multi-state tour, still basking in the glow of their recent nominations. That would carry them to the start up of the 2004 Olympic games at which point, it was believed, that the nation would take a two-week break from politics.

But it was not to be.

Kerry’s post-Convention tour was matched by President Bush’s own multi-state swing that on a few occasions placed both Bush and Kerry in the same state on the same day.

Then in early August, a small group of Vietnam War veterans launched an advertising campaign that first attacked Kerry’s war record and then his post-war leadership in the anti-war movement. The group, calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) started a national controversy that has lasted over three weeks. The debate they produced dominated the national news and, to some degree, eclipsed the gains that Kerry had hoped to achieve following the Democratic Convention.

Although the SBVT purchased only a small number of ads that ran in only three states, the controversy has reached across the country. A recent poll shows that more than 80% of Americans have seen or heard of the SBVT ad effort. And while, by a margin of two to one, Americans don’t believe the group’s assertion that Kerry lied about his Vietnam record, the ads have taken a toll.

The Democratic Convention’s projected image of Kerry as a war hero has now been, for some voters, tarnished, and called into question. More significantly for the campaign, for three weeks now, the Kerry campaign has been forced into a defensive strategy, unable to project its own message and to define the thrust of the overall debate. And so, instead of a post-Convention debate that focused on the issues Democrats hoped to raise (the conduct of the war in Iraq, the state of the economy, healthcare, etc.), the evening news was dominated by debates over how bad were Senator Kerry’s wounds were during the war, and was he or was he not in Cambodia on a given day, 36 years ago.

There are several reasons to account for this turn of events. The first, of course, is the war issue itself. By focusing the Democratic Convention on Kerry’s Vietnam record, the Massachusetts Senator’s opponents were invited to reopen old wounds of that era. Democrats sought to project the fact that Kerry served in combat (with the not-so subtle subtext that President Bush did not), that he was wounded, and awarded for heroism in battle. But Kerry was not just any Vietnam veteran; he came home and played a leading role as one of the more articulate spokespersons in the anti-war movement, an effort that more than three decades later some veterans can neither forgive nor forget.

While “Vietnam” has become a metaphor or a symbol for many Americans, for the generations that fought the war or fought against the war, it remains a deeply personal issue-a wound that has never healed. One prominent columnist recently noted that when the Vietnam era generation have retired to nursing homes, they will still be fighting the war, with their canes.

But while that Vietnam syndrome was the spark, what allowed the wild fire to spread and grow, engulfing all that came in its wake, was the deep partisan divide, the domination of 24-hour news media, coupled with the growing importance of the internet, and the persistence of talk radio programs as vehicles to spread information.

Even before the SBVT ads were aired on television, the content of the ads had been played over and over again on the news networks and on the internet. Fox News and its assorted daily programs gave the ad full coverage, and the other networks followed suit. With such wall-to-wall coverage, the ad and the debate it sparked quickly became a national news story, finding its way into the evening news and in print on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

While some have faulted the Kerry campaign for not responding more quickly to the challenge presented in the ads, it is difficult to see how even a more rapid response would have stopped the effort. For their part, Democrats did not want to have their campaign diverted by what they hoped would be distraction. The choices they faced were uncomfortable at best. But in the end, the challenge that “Kerry had lied,” had to be addressed head-on, even if it fueled the story another day.

The lessons of this past August are clear-conventions and events may be scripted, but the dynamics of the overall campaign cannot be. Politics is both a rough and dirty contact sport, and an unpredictable one as well. In a deeply divided partisan environment driven by multiple information sources, surprises are the order of the day.

The dust seems to have settled on the Swift Boat controversy as the Presidential campaign now moves to New York for the start of the Republican Convention. What will be the next “surprise” that will spark controversy in September or October? And will it, like the Swift Boat controversy, ignite yet another wildfire that will dominate the Presidential campaign, and divert attention from the issues that both campaigns should be debating before the electorate this year?

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