Political Hay

Self-Inflicted

Kerry’s response to the Swift veterans suggests he’s not too swift. So say the pros.

By 8.27.04

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John Kerry's campaign for President has drastically mismanaged the controversy surrounding his record in Vietnam and may be sowing the seeds of his own electoral destruction, according to political and communications experts. We asked several experts to take off their partisan hats and analyze the Kerry campaign's response to the current crisis in which the junior Senator from Massachusetts finds himself.

"The Kerry campaign has misplayed this issue from day one. Their incompetence has exposed a glass jaw, a fragile one at that," David Carney told The American Spectator. Carney served as White House Political Director for President George H. W. Bush.

At issue is whether or not the Kerry campaign has made smart decisions in dealing with the crisis that befell them at the hands of 250 plus Vietnam Veterans who call themselves the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The Vets have run television ads suspicious of the integrity of Kerry's war record and critical of his anti-war activity upon returning home.

Kerry has attempted to fight back, even running ads targeting his critics' veracity and tying them to the Bush campaign. Many pundits and political professionals believe Kerry has only made the problem worse by blowing it up in the press.

For example, by the time the Kerry campaign launched its counterattack against the Vets, the New York Times had run only three stories on the controversy, all of which can reasonably be said to have been sympathetic to the Senator. But since August 17th, when the pro-Kerry 527 group MoveOn.org launched an attack against the Vets, the Times has written ten stories, all of which detailed the charges against Kerry, even if they hinted they found those charges unconvincing.

MOREOVER, AMIDST AN ELECTION cycle in which the two major party candidates for president have spent over $300 million combined thus far, the Swiftees initial $200,000 media buy seems rather paltry. But in his public response to the ad, Kerry has turned it -- and his record -- into the central narrative of the 2004 campaign. "It was a total blunder on his part," political consultant and former Executive Director of the American Conservative Union Christian Josi told us.

Meanwhile, Kerry has attempted to display his willingness to fight back as a symbol of his bravery and strength. "More than 30 years ago I learned an important lesson. When you're under attack the best thing to do is turn your boat into the attack," he said as he launched his counterattack last week. As wise as such a tactic may be in warfare, it may not be such a smart move in a political campaign. It may have instead set Kerry on a course from which he can never again deviate.

"When you are attacked in a campaign, you need to respond quickly and forcefully, and then move on," said Carney, who is now a national GOP strategist. "Kerry's response was much too late and much too ham-handed."

Josi agreed, saying "he should have dismissed it, stayed on message, and moved on."

Even Democrats agree. "The old chestnut is 'never repeat the charge.' Well, Kerry repeats it every morning with yet another harebrained stunt designed to discredit the Swiftees," one experienced Democrat operative, who asked to remain nameless, told us. "The Kerry campaign is helping to sear questions about their own candidate's honesty and service to his country into peoples' minds."

ALL THE EXPERTS WE SPOKE to pointed to former President Bill Clinton's skill at diverting attention away from his own numerous scandals. "Clinton always talked about how he was trying to do the work of the American people and all those scandals were just Republican-fueled distractions. It worked for Clinton. But Kerry can't do that credibly because he never established a compelling campaign message in the first place, other than 'I'm not George W. Bush,'" Carney said.

Eric Dezenhall of Dezenhall Resources, a non-partisan communications firm based in Washington, D.C. that helps corporations and celebrities survive public relations nightmares like this one, insists "the timing was just fine. But they [the Kerry campaign] can't respond with all of this 'play nice' nonsense. It validates the notion that they're weak. Americans intrinsically understand that conflicts are not resolved through weakness." And in a political environment boiling with talk of war and terror threats, who wants a weak president?

Several of the experts we spoke to recognized Kerry's tactics; heavy reliance on legal nuances, holier-than-thou sanctimony, attacks against the accuser. Bill Clinton and his political operators put these devices to good use against Ken Starr during the Whitewater-gate investigation. But the comparisons stop there. "These are the same tactics Clinton used. Only, where are all the Clinton spinsters?" Carney asked. "The ones that have been on TV lately are out of practice and come across as lame."

"I believe that the Swiftees could have been marginalized. Thank God John Kerry is no Bill Clinton," Josi added.

By far the biggest criticism most experts have about Kerry's handling of his Vietnam record is the degree to which the campaign trumped it up in the first place. "Kerry's core 'brand' is his Vietnam war service. He's anchored his career on this. He made the decision to make Vietnam his centerpiece issue long ago," Dezenhall noted.

"Kerry played the hero card so often he left himself open to these attacks," added Carney.

Even one Democratic operative close to the Kerry campaign, who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, expressed frustration that Kerry's signature issue has been tarnished. "We have spent months portraying this image. War hero, war hero, war hero. That's all we've talked about. Now, whenever we bring it up, we'll always be asked about the Swiftees," the operative stated.

BUT DEZENHALL WARNS REPUBLICANS not to plan their family vacations to the national capital around a second Bush inaugural just yet. "Don't forget that August is always scandal season. John Kennedy once said that no president survives his first August. By engaging this issue right now, there's a good chance it will be out of the way before the real campaign starts," he said.

We'll have to wait and see. But on Tuesday, the Kerry campaign quietly conceded the Senator's first Purple Heart may have resulted from an "unintentional, self-inflicted wound" just as his critics have charged. This, after being forced to admit that he hadn't been in Cambodia during the Christmas of 1968 as he previously insisted.

Could we be a mere two layers deep into a very, very stinky onion?

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About the Author

Patrick Hynes is an account executive with the consulting firm Marsh Copsey + Scott and the proprietor of the websites www.passionforfairness.com and www.crushkerry.com.