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.)