Political Hay

Harkin Is on the Way

Just what the Kerry camp ordered -- another Vietnam dissembler.

By 8.20.04

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John Kerry finds himself in a mess, most of it his own making. Having spent most of the general election campaign touting (if not exaggerating) his service is Vietnam, he now seems shocked that a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is taking issue with it. It has so thrown Kerry that he will run advertisements defending his service, spending cash that he had hoped to conserve for after the GOP Convention.

To make matters worse, he's now getting help he could do without, in the form of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. On Monday, Harkin blasted remarks made by Vice President Dick Cheney. According to CNN:

"It just outrages me that someone who got five deferments during Vietnam and said he had 'other priorities' at that time would say that," said the Iowa Democrat, a former Navy fighter pilot.

Harkin said he had seen clips of the vice president saying in Iowa last week that Kerry lacks a basic understanding of the war on terrorism.

He accused President Bush and his vice president of "resorting to dirty attacks on John Kerry's war record."

"They're running scared because John Kerry has a war record and they don't," said Harkin. "What he (Cheney) is doing and what he is saying is cowardly. The actions are cowardly."

….Harkin said that it angered him to hear tough talk from Cheney.

"When I hear this coming from Dick Cheney, who was a coward, who would not serve during the Vietnam War, it makes my blood boil," said Harkin.

"He'll be tough, but he'll be tough with someone else's kid's blood," said Harkin.

Kerry would do well to place a call to Harkin and tell him to shut his yap. He has enough to worry about without getting tied to the comments made by a loose cannon in his own party. Harkin has a history of making controversial statements. In March of 2003, he darkly hinted that Iraq would be another Vietnam, concluding that today Vietnam "might not be the mirror image of our government but they seem to be doing all right." Barely a month later, he claimed that the quick victory by our troops showed that Hussein's regime was a "paper tiger." Last February he compared Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide favorably with President Bush: "He's got more support there than Bush got in this country. He's a legitimate, democratically elected president." Conservatives could take heart -- at least he didn't compare Guantanamo with "necklacing."

Worse, Harkin himself has a rather troubled history of making suspect claims about his military service. It didn't take the blogosphere long to dig up a controversy surrounding Harkin's presidential campaign in 1992. Back then, reporters found remarks he made in the Congressional Record in 1980 in which he claimed he was a "Vietnam veteran in Congress." They also found a round-table discussion during which he uttered the following comment about his five years as a Navy pilot: "One year was in Vietnam. I was flying F-4s and F-8s on combat air patrols and photo-reconnaissance support missions. I did no bombing." He didn't do much flying over Vietnam either. He was stationed as a pilot in Japan and flew into Vietnam about a dozen times to return planes that had been repaired. Someone who made up his own Vietnam service probably won't, in the long run, make an effective defender of Kerry's.

Ultimately, Senator Harkin's recent attack on Cheney reveals the problems with Kerry's campaign strategy all along. While Harkin claimed Cheney was attacking Kerry's war record, Cheney was actually criticizing Kerry's approach to the War on Terrorism. Instead of defending Kerry's national security policy, Harkin went straight for the "Kerry as Vietnam Hero" defense. From the beginning Kerry's campaign has wanted his service in Vietnam to be the defense against every criticism aimed his way. Harkin was just following that page in the Kerry playbook.

The unintended consequence of this approach is Kerry has not given undecided voters any reason to choose him over Bush. A recent AP story quoted Elizabeth Burnosky, a registered Democrat who voted for Bush in 2000. "I'd like to vote against Bush," she said, "but I don't know whether Kerry would keep us safe. All he talks about is Vietnam. Vietnam. Vietnam. Big deal. I still want to know who's going to protect us today."

Now, not only has Kerry failed to gain voters confidence on national security, he has to defend his Vietnam service. The Kerry campaign is taking on water. The last thing it needs is Harkin punching another hole in the boat.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.