Four years ago, Senator John McCain, battling for the Republican presidential nomination, told audiences, “I’m just like Luke Skywalker trying to get out of the Death Star. They’re shooting at me from everywhere.” The Death Star, of course, was the first Bush-Cheney campaign and its allies. And McCain indeed encountered — and was brought down by — a stunning fusillade that included scurrilous attacks on his mental stability, his family and his support of fellow veterans.
Now the Death Star is back, and Senator John Kerry — another Vietnam War hero — is in the cross hairs. No sooner had he bagged the Democratic nomination than the Republicans let loose a not-secret-at-all effort to define Kerry, who remains unfamiliar to many voters, as a weak-on-defense Washington insider who never strays from the liberal line but who also is an unprincipled waffler with two positions on every issue. It didn’t matter that the GOP assault contained contradictions (a firm ideologue and a finger-in-the-wind hollow man). The aim for the Bush crew was to throw as much as it could at Kerry and see what sticks.
This opening barrage showed that the Bush-Cheney squad can do much to place Kerry and his team on the defensive and that the Bush gang can use the media effectively to convey its attack du jour (or de l’heure). This first round also demonstrated that Kerry supporters cannot yet count on the Kerry campaign to handle all the incoming and that they cannot rely on the media to keep the Bush attacks in context. What helped Kerry most in this period were external events that impeded the Bushies’ carefully concocted plans. That is, Kerry was aided more by others than himself.
In one of the preliminary post-primary exchanges, Kerry criticized Bush for not being supportive of the troops (by not providing sufficient body armor) and veterans (by not fully funding health care for vets). In response, the Bush campaign slammed Kerry for voting last fall against the $87 billion funding for war and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. The message: Kerry had voted against the troops and was an insincere flip-flopper who only pretended to care about the guys and gals in uniform. How did Kerry reply? While assailing Bush, he explained this vote by saying, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
Kerry was right on points, but a million miles off in delivery. He meant that he had initially voted for legislation that provided the $87 billion and covered the bill’s cost by repealing some of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Only after that measure failed did Kerry oppose the $87 billion, arguing that he was voting against Bush’s unwillingness to pay for the legislation. His explanation made sense. But it did seem like a line from a two-faced pol — the role in which the Bush campaign was trying to cast him. Kerry had slipped on his own slop.
Kerry aides said the remark was a product of fatigue. But he bobbled another minicontroversy when he was errantly quoted as saying that “foreign leaders” wanted to see him elected. And Kerry was also placed on the defensive when the Bush crew attacked him for having tried to “gut” U.S. intelligence in the mid-1990s by proposing “deeply irresponsible” cuts in intelligence funding. But Kerry had called for a series of annual cuts that were barely more than 1 percent. Is that gutting? And he had urged $1.5 billion in cuts after the news broke that the National Reconnaissance Office, the secretive agency in charge of spy satellites, had improperly socked away up to $1.7 billion and created a slush fund for itself.
But Bush’s charge got more attention than Kerry’s explanations. Headlines noted that Kerry stood accused of trying to have it “both ways” on intelligence funding. For Team Bush, it was mission accomplished. This illustrated a problem for Kerry that won’t go away: The media generally convey the thrust of an attack more than they examine the particulars, especially when the attacker is the president or the vice president.
Is the Kerry campaign ready for this extreme politics? It has a rapid-response team in place, but it is still being beefed up. The Kerry campaign has shown the ability to go on the offensive, such as when it got word to the press that a business executive whom Bush was about to appoint as his new manufacturing czar had shut down facilities in the United States while opening a plant in China. The appointment was then canceled. Still, speed is one thing; money is another. In the past few weeks, Bush has spent over $25 million on television ads; Kerry, about $2 million.
Some Democrats have grumbled that Kerry was not adequately prepared for the Bush assault. A senior Kerry aide notes that the campaign was surprised by “how much the media covers the Bush attacks as a major story.” And a Republican political operative (who is no fan of Bush) says, “The Bush guy will throw everything in the world at you. I know Kerry is aware of that. I just don’t think that the Democrats were really ready for it. It will be unrelenting. Kerry’s made a few mistakes. But you can’t give them any openings. They’re cyborgs. They keep on attacking.” There’s no denying that Bush has a big advantage, in money and in ability to define his opponent. (Bush, after all, is pretty well defined.) Kerry can be a fighter. But all the time, for eight long months? Can this fellow, who windsurfs and snowboards, actually kickbox and perform ballet while running a triple marathon through a course laden with land mines? That is what Kerry will have to do.
Kerry aides are looking (or hoping) for assistance from . . . well, the real world. As a longtime Kerry adviser puts it, “Anytime the news from the real world does not intrude, the Bush administration is capable of destroying any living thing on Earth. The problem they have is that there is a real world.” An example: As Dick Cheney was giving a speech decrying Kerry’s national-security record, cable television networks carried the vice president live on a split screen next to scenes of a deadly hotel bombing in Baghdad. “He looked like the one out of touch,” this Kerry aide maintains. Perhaps. But Kerry did catch big breaks from two hawks. When a television interviewer asked McCain about the Bush attacks on Kerry, a friend of his, McCain declared that Kerry was not “weak on national defense” and called on Bush to knock off the name-calling. And then, Richard Clarke, who was the chief White House official on counterterrorism in the Clinton and Bush administrations, unleashed a book that accuses Bush of neglecting the threat from al Qaeda before 9/11 and of pursuing a war in Iraq that undermined the efforts to smash al Qaeda.
Neither the McCain nor the Clarke episode was planned by the Kerry people. But they sure threw off Bush and helped Kerry. If Kerry is going to have a chance against the Death Star, he will have to run a close-to-perfect campaign and be aided by events that are beyond his power to control — and beyond the reach of the powerful forces he faces.