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The Wrong Lessons from Swift-Boating

By Steven Stark

A leading theme among Democrats this year is how they won't allow Barack Obama to be "Swift-boated," as John Kerry was in 2004, or "Hortoned," as Michael Dukakis was in 1988 when the Willie Horton issue trailed him all the way to the election.

When asked recently about his failed Swift-boat-response strategy, Kerry noted that he lost the presidential election not because he didn't respond with the truth. "We did," he said. "We just didn't do it enough."

Dukakis, meanwhile, attributes his loss to Bush the Elder as both a matter of principle and a lack of readiness -- a readiness, he notes, which Obama possesses. "It's quite obvious that he and the people around him know what's about to happen and they're ready for it," he said, referring to the Obama campaign. "I wasn't. I made, as you know, a deliberate decision . . . that I would not respond to the Bush attack campaign. Clearly, we [the Democrats] cannot do that. [Obama's] not going to do that."

But to build on Spanish philosopher George Santayana's famous remark, those who cannot remember the past accurately are condemned to repeat it. If Obama follows the advice of Kerry, Dukakis, and all the other Democrats who think the way to deal with attacks is just to keep answering and attacking back, he will end up in the same unfortunate position as those two nominees.

Though they're often grouped together, the assaults on Kerry and Dukakis were much different. Those that were focused on Kerry's war record -- alleging his actions were not as "heroic" as portrayed -- were largely false. And, unlike Dukakis, Kerry answered back at his accusers.

Kerry's real mistake -- and what allowed the charges to fester -- was that he made his three-decade-old war experience a key part of his campaign, even beginning his acceptance speech with the words, "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty."

Once he did that, his Vietnam record became a central issue and fair game for critics. And once one gives that much amplitude to a series of personal events that happened 30 years earlier, and that others experienced too, one is inevitably going to be subject to conflicting accounts and faulty memories.

So it went for Kerry. Yes, the GOP poured fuel on the fire. But he lit the match himself -- a mistake John McCain is unlikely to make this time by making his war heroism a rhetorical centerpiece of his campaign.

Dukakis and Willie Horton were another matter entirely. Horton, Democratic partisans don't need reminding, was the Massachusetts convicted murderer let out on a weekend leave who didn't return and subsequently raped a woman in Maryland and attacked her fiancé. His story and the state's furlough program became the showpiece of a whole series of Republican ads that Democrats have been complaining about ever since.

Yes, the ads had racial overtones and, yes, Dukakis didn't really respond. But the real problem with the underlying story was a difficult one to counter under any circumstance: it was true. (Remember, it was Al Gore who had first raised it in the Democratic primaries earlier that year.)

Massachusetts was, in fact, the only state that allowed prisoners serving sentences of life without parole the opportunity to go out on furloughs. And, worse, Dukakis had vetoed a bill that would have reversed this practice. (The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize showcasing the program.) Dukakis could have spent the whole campaign responding and it wouldn't have done a bit of good unless his response had been, "I made a mistake and I won't make it again."

Better safe and sorry

So, what are the lessons for Obama from the Bush-bested Democrats? First, from the Kerry experience, avoid glamorizing your past or making categorical assertions or denials about it. (Obama's claim that Reverend Jeremiah Wright's inflammatory declarations were "not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity" is just such an assertion.) No matter what Obama thinks happened in the past, there were other people there at the time who might have a different version of events that will contradict his.

Second, apologize when necessary -- it goes a long way. Politicians as varied as Ronald Reagan (Iran-Contra) and Ted Kennedy (Chappaquiddick) have used apologies to rescue their political careers. The key, as they demonstrated, is to apologize in the politically savviest way -- namely by pleading guilty to a lesser offense and showing contrition for that.

It has been a regrettable trait of the Obama campaign so far (which is reminiscent of the Dukakis reaction to Willie Horton) that it can seemingly never admit when its candidate makes a mistake. An old questionnaire that contradicts a policy stand? Oh, an aide must have done it for him (even though one copy apparently featured Obama's handwritten notes added to an answer). Reverend Wright gives outrageous sermons? Obama must have never been in church to hear them.

The problem with the answers in these cases is that they leave the door open to more factual disputes that keep the story alive and slowly damage the candidate's credibility. If Obama would just apologize and show a tad more humility from time to time, the Republicans would have fewer easy targets to hit, and the rest of us could all move on.

Willie Horton and Swift-boating have become talismanic words for the Democrats -- symbols of how elections can be lost by dirty tricks and not fighting back. That's the wrong lesson. Kerry made a bad strategic choice, Dukakis a bad policy one, and neither was really defensible. The voters are a forgiving lot: occasionally admitting mistakes can go a long way.

Boston Phoenix


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