By now you have probably heard about the latest ad from the Obama campaign, I mean Priorities USA, a group that speaks for the campaign. The Democrats saw how well swift boating worked in 2004, and they certainly don’t intend to let the new tools of slander go unused.
Slander and scurrility have been a stock part of American political campaigns for a long time. What seems different now is the speed with which they do their work. In a matter of weeks, the swift boaters brought down John Kerry, a true war hero with courage to stand against the Vietnam war when he returned home. His opponents in 2004 hated his anti-war stand, but they couldn’t get him on that. People know Kerry was right: it was a bad war and as a country we were wrong to wage it. That does not make the soldiers who went there unworthy of our admiration.
Unable to get him for telling the truth, the swift boaters claimed he lied about his service in order to win decorations he didn’t deserve. Can you think of a political lie more disgraceful than that? A young man goes to war and suffers wounds as he leads his crew in battle, and years later his countrymen say he lied in order to get a Purple Heart.
Kerry was correct: this lie was beneath contempt. It did not deserve a response. Yet here we are, in a summer election season eight years later, and the swift boaters’ example appears everywhere in our political culture. The Obama campaign finds a bitter man, Joe Soptic, who holds Mitt Romney responsible for his wife’s death. Like the swift boaters, the Democrats who created this ad don’t care whether Soptic’s accusation is true or not. They only care whether the ad will help them win the election in November. I’ll tell you something: a party that is willing to run an ad like this one is a party that is willing to steal the election. It won’t matter how many votes Romney gets: the incumbent will win. Why? In this political environment, the swift boaters will find a way.
I remember coming home on election night, November 2, 2004. I turned on the television to see the returns. The newscasters talked as if Kerry had already won, though they had not officially called the election yet. Exit polls showed Kerry running ahead of Bush in key swing states east of the Mississippi: Ohio and Pennsylvania. With those states, plus other large blue ones such as New York and California, Kerry was set to finish with more than 270 electoral votes.
Then suddenly, the newscasters turned about. Talk of Kerry’s victory ceased abruptly. It seemed as if someone had spoken into their earpieces, “Stop! Stop this talk about Kerry. You’ve made a mistake. Bush is going to win.” How could we know that Bush would win? Well, we couldn’t know that, but not so long after the newscasters’ turnabout, we received reports about fishiness in Ohio. We heard about the techniques used there to keep urban, Democratic voters out of the final tally.
All of a sudden, Ohio’s electoral votes went to Bush instead of Kerry. That was enough to give the election to Bush: one large state. Like Nixon in 1960, Kerry chose not to contest the results in Ohio, though I don’t see how it would have caused him or the country any harm to do so. Altogether, Bush was fortunate to have a Republican secretary of state in Florida in 2000, and a Republican secretary of state in Ohio in 2004. Having the state’s senior election official on your side can help when the count is close.
I actually don’t know what happened in Ohio in 2004. I wish I did. I wish Kerry would tell us what he knows about the outcome in Ohio, or why he decided not to contest it. Bush’s margin there ended at a little under 120,000 votes. Kerry said that was too big a difference, and left it at that. He must have thought, in our system a recount is the only way to dispute an election outcome. A recount would not overturn a difference of more than 100,000 votes, however numerous the voting irregularities.
The significant thing is that after the way Bush got into office in 2000, no one except hard core supporters had any reason to regard him as a legitimate leader. The way he and his people conducted their campaign through the summer of 2004 just confirmed Bush’s unfitness for office. President Obama now makes his trek down the same path. He’s not asking us to vote for him because he wants to lead us somewhere we haven’t been before. He’s asking us to vote for him because his opponent is a shithead who permits a former employee’s spouse to die of cancer, a claim that’s untrue on its face. No one can respect a president who runs an ad like that. I should add, if you look at the advertisements Romney ran against his opponents during the Republican primary season, you won’t find a lot to like.
As I observed at the outset, the swift boaters set new standards of dishonesty for our political culture in 2004. They are not high ones. To work with standards this low, you have work with smelly politics. Be sure you don’t step in anything soft on the byway.