Professor Nacos on 'Swiftboating' Obama
While the North Carolina ad and similar ones elsewhere are part of congressional contests, the Wright-Obama association will become the predominant theme of this fall’s “Swift Boat” version. Under-the-belt campaign ads like the Willy Horton commercial and similar attack ads that derailed Governor Mike Dukakis presidential chances and the “Swift Boat” offensive against Senator John Kerry are typically financed and placed by groups that do not have official ties to the benefiting campaign.
Because I knew years before the 2004 election about Senator Kerry's controversial actions during the Vietnam War, I disagree whenever the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" are painted as a slanderous Republican invention. I responded to Professor Nacos:
In both the cases of Obama and Kerry, the Democrats invited controversy upon themselves.
The enmity by many in the veterans community toward Kerry due to his actions during the Vietnam War had an established history before the 2004 election. As a young soldier in the late 1990s, I learned that the collective memory of the Vietnam War defeat still causes psychic pain in the military. I didn't consider the Vietnam War when I joined the Army - it was old history - yet I was surprised in Basic Training when a drill sergeant, who probably wasn't born yet when the last American soldier was withdrawn from Vietnam, passionately talked to us about the Army's changes since the Vietnam War. Among soldiers, the wound from that war still felt that fresh, and associated with the wound, I heard about John Kerry. Even so, I didn't think about him until a lazy, web-surfing afternoon in 2001, soon after I had left the Army, when I came across a veterans against Kerry website. The material they posted, much of it 1st hand from Kerry, disgusted me as a recent veteran. It would be hard to characterize young Kerry as other than a traitor, and a foolish harmful one at that. So, years before the 2004 election, even as a casual observer, I understood that Kerry's relationship with the veterans community was problematic, at best.
Fast forward to the 2004 Presidential election. I was a volunteer on GEN Wes Clark's campaign, who had a long and distinguished military career, including as a combat officer wounded in Vietnam. But, Clark stumbled on the range of domestic issues and Kerry swept the nomination. Fine, I thought, it meant that Democrats didn't value the military reputation of the next Commander in Chief like I did - fair enough. So, I was surprised when the Democrats made the obvious strategic blunder of front-lining their campaign against Bush with the marketing of Kerry as a war hero based on his Vietnam War record. I thought, if the Democrats wanted an unassailable combat veteran, why didn't they pick GEN Wes Clark as their candidate? By marketing Kerry as a war hero, the Democrats practically challenged anti-Kerry veterans to push back with a passionate response.
Did the GOP help amplify and broadcast the message from the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth"? No doubt, but the message was pre-existing and long-standing, not a Rove-ian invented slander as Democrats like to imply. It's hard for me to believe that the Democrats didn't know about Kerry's reputation among veterans when they made the obtuse decision to market him as a war hero in the 2004 election.
Similarly, Obama has a long, public, and uncommonly close affiliation with Reverend Wright. I have to qualify that by saying I'm not religious, so I can't speak with authority, but it seems that Obama's relationship with Wright goes beyond the usual pastor-congregant relationship. After all, Obama cites him as a major influence in his life, and named his book meant to define him as a Presidential candidate after a Wright sermon. In addition to the relationship, Obama's disjointed attempts to disassociate from Wright only raise more troubling questions. Is Obama not a transcendant figure, but merely just an ordinary expedient politician - as Wright implied in the Moyers interview? Can we believe Obama today about Wright when Obama only disassociated from Wright in hasty reaction to media scrutiny and public outcry? Is Obama a liar or a chameleon? What are his core principles - just what does Obama believe in and stand for?
In the end, Democrats can only blame themselves for making two very winnable Presidential elections harder than they should have been. They legitimated the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" scrutiny by marketing Kerry as a war hero candidate for war-time President. They legitimated the Wright-based scrutiny by marketing the powerfully attractive promise - symbolically and explicitly - that Obama is a post-Civil Rights era, post-racial progressive uniter.
Like Kerry's controversial history related to the Vietnam War, Obama's relationship with Wright is long-standing and a matter of record. I have to ask again: how could the Democrats have failed to anticipate the controversies that these problematic associations would cause?