George W. Bush’s tepid protestations this week against “that ad, every other ad,” those political attack ads run by supposedly independent committees, have all the authenticity of Brer Rabbit’s anguished supplications of “Please, whatever you do, don’t fling me into the briar patch.”

Dubya’s presidency was as much as birthed in that thorny jumble of plausibly deniable negative smears. If his once-removed operatives had not tarred and feathered John McCain as a traitorous coward in the South Carolina 2000 primaries, the Prince of Crawford would likely have never been as much as nominated. Just as his father was only too happy to exploit the boost offered him by the “independent” peddlers of the Willie Horton smut. Those so-called 527 committees, like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, unregulated vessels for barrels of partisan cash, and suspended in the disbelief that they are not coordinated with either candidate’s official campaign, are, in fact, indispensable weapons in each party’s armory.

George Bush’s Republicans have about as much intention of spurning support from the likes of SBVT than the Kerry Democrats do of shutting down Just because the two major parties engage in the fiction that these 527s are separate entities from the campaigns doesn’t mean we have to deny the obvious truth that on both sides these committees are nothing but obedient appendages. (Note to progressives: For the last year or so, you have betrayed your once-principled stand for campaign-finance reform and have been singing the praises of liberal 527’s like MoveOn, ACT and the Media Fund. Well, my friends, welcome to the world of “independent” committees. As you can see, Republicans can play too.)

Negative campaigns are nothing new, and everyone is to blame. It was, in fact, Al Gore who originally floated Willie Horton as a foil against Michael Dukakis, his more liberal primary contender in 1988. And Democrats can hardly plead innocent when it comes to personal attacks, smears, innuendo campaigns and rumor-mongering when it comes to Bush (even if he is arguably a more deserving target). Indeed, MoveOn is currently running a spot impugning whatever there is of the president’s military record.

Nevertheless, the SBVT attack on John Kerry is the lowest, filthiest campaign maneuver I’ve seen in my adult life. It’s deeply offensive and intellectually insulting. Not so much to Kerry, but to the rest of us. I care very little if Kerry has dabbled in medal inflation (not an impossibility). But what does this “debate” have, in any form, to do with any of the matters facing us a nation? Do Karl Rove and his Kronies believe we are chimpanzees? Do they believe they can conjure from whole cloth an entire counternarrative of Kerry’s life? That we will overlook the consequences of the current war in Iraq — which has cost a thousand American dead, 6,500 wounded and $200 billion — because Kerry’s wounds in a different war 35 years ago were not deep enough to satisfy an orange-haired, Viagra-pumped Bob Dole? (Dole, by the way, admits that some of the shrapnel he carries might have been blowback from one of his own tossed grenades).

That said, how did John Kerry get himself into this fix? When an unpopular, unmanageable and unfinanced war
leveraged on rather hollow pretexts is being fought out before our eyes, it seems that it’s the incumbent president who ought to be on the defensive, not his decorated challenger. But Kerry voted for this folly of a war, and when offered the chance to second-guess that decision two weeks ago, he doggedly stood by his original poor choice. So if I were Bush and I saw that Kerry had robbed himself of the chance to attack me on Iraq, I too would have gone after him on his Vietnam record. Why not?

And what did Kerry think the Republicans were going to do after he staked his entire campaign on his projected “strength” as a Vietnam vet? Respectfully return his from-the-podium salute? (I’m not justifying the Republican attack, just reporting on it). When Kerry strutted around like Rambo, he forfeited the basic principle of making elections about the future instead of the past, and instead of talking about what kind of change he might represent, here we are once again mired in the Big Muddy of Vietnam.

So after 10 days of relentless and damaging barrage on Kerry’s person and our intellect, President Bush has graciously called a bombing halt. This comes after distracting national attention from, say, the showdown in Najaf, the escalating Abu Ghraib revelations, a federal rollback of overtime pay and a stalled Dow Jones, and right before the ad issue seriously boomeranged on him on the eve of his Republican Convention.

But it’s only an LBJ-like pause. The next volley from SBVT is already being prepped. This second onslaught, predictably enough, targets Kerry’s anti-war posture after he came home from Vietnam. This is a chapter in Kerry’s life where he showed undeniable and richly documented valor, and where he demonstrated a lot more political sense than he did a few years earlier, when he volunteered to serve in what was already a deeply tainted imperial war. It’s also a time in his life that Kerry as much as skipped over during the official campaign re-enactments of his biography.

Under this new line of attack, what will Kerry do? Once more he’s being offered a clear choice of defensively reacting to an ambush or boldly taking the offensive. Which John Kerry will we see these next few weeks?

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