Special Report

If the Democrats Lose

We’ll know who to thank and which root causes to credit.

By 10.19.04

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Conventional wisdom says that if the Kerry/Edwards ticket triumphs over the Bush/Cheney ticket on November 2nd, it will be because Americans want "fresh credibility" and a new start rather than more of the same. Pundits riding that horse tend to have an underdeveloped sense of irony, however: look for them to switch mounts if the Democrats lose. To preserve the integrity of their worldview, they have to believe that Republican defeats trace back to message, but Democratic defeats trace back to messenger.

If the Kedwards ticket goes down, you won't find candor in the first blush of loss, when campaign staffers hug each other and chirp about the great race run by their vanquished candidates. Distraught cooing in the aviary will yield to raucous cawing when stories about the outrages of Karl Rove and his brainwashed toadies begin dominating the news cycle. That cathartic moment will in turn clear space for Pulitzer Prize-winning think pieces about how hard it is to sell nuance to the yokels in flyover country.

Only when the media have put those ground rules in place will reporters start finding Democrats willing to speculate about the shortcomings of their standard-bearers. As embittered interview subjects start throwing darts at Kerry and Edwards, professional commentators will be working overtime to preserve the health of the "Who's your daddy?" and "W stands for Wrong" memes on which the Democratic Party now depends.

Stories about how Kerry never really connected with his putative constituents will read like eulogies for a misunderstood uncle. Edwards will revert to the "aw, shucks" form best suited for rehabilitating his own career. Syndicated columnists will attribute Kerry's downfall to voter fraud (Paul Krugman of the New York Times has already joined the Democratic National Committee in testing that theory). If Republicans win more than ten percent of the black vote or voter fraud becomes unusable as a story frame because it looks predominantly Democratic, columnists will pin Kerry's loss on Bush's stubbornness, Rove's genius, and the street-fighting skills of the Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth.

I'm hoping to see this kind of analysis because it will only surface if Bush wins. On the other hand, it's superficial at best. And here I must confess that I've buried the lead. If the Democrats lose badly enough to create more blame or thanksgiving than Kerry deserves to shoulder by himself, a case can be made for ignoring the usual suspects to salute the inadvertent contributions of Douglas Brinkley, Mary Mapes, and the U.S. military, in that order.

THE JANUARY 2004 RELEASE of Douglas Brinkley's sanitized biography, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, reinforced the Senator's habit of emphasizing Vietnam service to the exclusion of almost everything he's done since then. Brinkley underscored the image that Kerry meant to project by launching his formal campaign with a press conference next to the WWII aircraft carrier USS Yorktown. The site of that announcement looks in retrospect like a metaphor for the entire Kerry campaign. As a vintage carrier, and in contrast to ships of its type still far from retirement, the Yorktown's symbolic strength is leavened by a dose of nostalgia.

The same could be said about Brinkley's book, which triggered public questions about Kerry's old diary and medical records. Most importantly, the Brinkley book galvanized the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth into escalating their longstanding fight with the warrior who slandered his brothers-in-arms while testifying in front of the legislative body to which he would later be elected. Without Tour of Duty, there would not have been a bestselling rebuttal called Unfit for Command.

Those veterans angry with John Kerry didn't want the grief of organizing when he was a junior Senator whose policy views impacted only one state. Brinkley's book changed that dynamic by giving Kerry a platform from which to become a problem for the whole country. Without meaning to, Brinkley proved to many Swiftees and POWs that Kerry had flunked the national test. More than 200 of these warriors figured he did not therefore deserve election to an office from which he could flunk global tests. The global test that wandered into Republican talking points after the first presidential debate was only able to do so because Kerry missed this irony.

In a higher-profile mistake, CBS producer Mary Mapes beached John Kerry's Swift Boat while trying to steer it into a collision with the F-102 jet fighter once flown by George Bush. When alleged National Guard documents on which Mapes built a televised report were exposed as fakes, the credibility of the mainstream media suffered a blow from which it never recovered. Worse, her history and conduct left no room for other people to defend what she had done as an honest mistake. Howard Fineman of Newsweek told radio host Don Imus that Mapes was "obsessed" with trying to prove that George Bush got special treatment. She was, he said, trying to "save the world from a George Bush presidency." Instead she proved that ideology has no regard for truth.

Mapes effectively neutered a Kerry ally that one magazine editor had previously said was capable of giving the Democrats perhaps fifteen points in polls. Her position at CBS makes Kerry and Edwards seem especially clueless when they repeatedly invoke "what you see on TV with your own eyes" as evidence for thinking that everything in Iraq has curdled. Now we hear of a leaked memo from ABC honcho Mark Halperin advising reporters to look harder at Bush than at Kerry. Is anyone surprised? Didn't think so. That lack of public shock at obvious bias is and was a gift to Bush from Mary Mapes.

UNLIKE BRINKLEY AND MAPES, the military damaged Kerry without being self-consciously partisan, simply because in a wartime election, military families become fact-checkers. Active and retired military people are the ones explaining that Kerry's plan to double Special Forces would blunt their effectiveness by making them less elite. Soldiers in Afghanistan dispute the Kerry claim that George Bush "outsourced" fighting at Tora Bora. Troops also point out that they'd rather serve with other volunteers than with draftees, and that recruiting goals are still being met. Stateside relatives of active duty Army and Marine Corps personnel called radio talk shows to tell fellow citizens about the big difference between deploying with obsolete body armor (which some units did), and deploying with no body armor at all (which Kerry claimed they had done).

As Democrats name-drop about the handful of retired generals in their camp, Bush basks in polls showing that military families give him a three to one edge over Kerry when asked which of the two candidates they trust more. Gaps like that matter.

The sunrise side of the mountain is worth looking at, as the president said in the third debate while talking about a painting, but also perhaps because he believes that Romans 8:28 and similar verses describe the ultimate in root causes. If that's the case, I'm right there with him. Come November 3, I'll either be asking God to bestow newfound wisdom on John Kerry, or thanking Him for Douglas Brinkley, Mary Mapes, and many people in uniform. Call it Christmas Eve in Cambodia, or Thanksgiving in America.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.