Two can play
For most of this election year, the Kerry for President campaign has had its own ad buys supplemented by ads purchased by "independent" 527 groups, such as the Media Fund, America Coming Together, and Moveon.org. Over $200 million has been raised by the 527 groups, almost all of it to support Kerry and the Democrats. The money has gone primarily for negative ads directed against President Bush, and for voter registration and grass roots organizing efforts in battleground states. Ironically, the 527 groups are in many cases directed by individuals who in the past were proponents of campaign finance reform, and decried the influence of big money on elections.
In the past week, groups supporting the President, and attacking Senator Kerry have begun broadcasting much more limited ad campaigns in a much smaller number of markets. The Swift Boat Veterans group, in tandem with the release of a book with a very detailed and damaging attack on the credibility of much of Senator Kerry's supposedly heroic war record, has had ads running in only three states. A new series of ads by the group People of Color United is running on African—American oriented radio stations in 11 markets. These ads challenge Kerry for missing a vote on extending unemployment benefits, and mock his wife's claim to be an African American (minus the hyphen, she maintains). Both sets of ads are effective, and the Swift Boat Vets' ads and book seem particularly damaging to Kerry.
The response by the mainstream media to this new aspect of the campaign has been to cry foul. There have been articles attempting to discredit the Swift Boat Vets. Various newspapers and media outlets appear to be following the Howell Raines model of flooding the zone, trying to dig up dirt on individual members of the Veterans group. Democratic officials have tried to get the Swift Boat Veterans' ads taken off the air, challenging their accuracy (as if the Moveon.org ads have set a high bar for truthfulness). So far, the major media have declined to launch their own investigations of the truth of the matter. I think it is likely that the liberal press fears that the group's charges will prove to be accurate in many cases, and debating them will only give free media coverage to the attacks on Kerry's record.
Already Fox News Channel has reported that the Kerry campaign is now disavowing many previous statements by Kerry over many years in which he claimed that his Swift Boat group was illegally operating in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968. This was an essential part of the story Kerry broadcast loudly upon his return home from Viet Nam —— that Americans were engaged in an illegal unauthorized war in Cambodia, and were committing war crimes in great numbers in Viet Nam. The anger of the few hundred Swift Boat Veterans against Kerry stems in large part, I believe, from the damage this group believes that Kerry caused for the hundreds of thousands of soldiers left behind fighting in Viet Nam, while Kerry, the "war hero" repeated his very broad (and in many cases false) accusations against the American war effort and the American soldiers still fighting in the war, upon his return. It certainly seems worth debating whether the specific charges that were part of Kerry's anti—war campaign upon his return to America "served" his country and the fellow soldiers he calls his "Band of Brothers."
The big problem for Kerry is that the recent Democratic Party convention was focused almost entirely on his 4 months of military service, and passed over his 30—plus year career since that time. Hence if the military story he so shamelessly promotes is proven wanting, he may find that he has a big—time credibility problem. Al Gore invented stories, Zelig style, in the 2000 campaign, and it hurt him deeply.
John Kerry appears at a minimum to have embellished his military record, and perhaps invented some of it as well. And his anti—war efforts after returning from Viet Nam appear to be riddled with false statements. In the 2000 campaign, the national media reported on the Gore misstatements and inventions. So far, the response to the charges by the Swift Boat veterans against Kerry suggests that the national media believes there is too much at stake here to study the charges seriously and risk damaging Kerry's chances.
When Michael Moore's most recent collection of lies about the President was packaged together in Fahrenheit 911, the national media, with few exceptions, awarded very favorable reviews to the movie, calling it a passionate and patriotic film. The movie critics did not attempt to discredit Moore, nor did they challenge his assertions. Paul Krugman admitted in one New York Times column that some of Moore's arguments were perhaps false, but since the film was an important part of the effort to bring down the President, the inaccuracies (lies) did not matter. He too lauded Moore's patriotism. Presumably patriotism for the New York Times and its ilk means never having to say you did not give your all to defeat George Bush, the greatest service one can provide to the country today.
Given their late start, the 527 campaigns that are going after Kerry and trying to help Bush, will be far out spent by their counterparts on the left. These liberal and leftist groups have so far been given a pass by the national media, which has neither scrutinized their ads, nor pointed out the hypocrisy in the way they skirt the McCain Feingold reforms (by not visibly "coordinating" their campaign effort with the party or the candidate's campaign). Given the media's obsession with the evil corporate empires ——Enron, and Halliburton most specifically —— and their alleged influence in the White House, it is not accidental that the same national media have not seemed bothered by the tens of millions contributed to the pro—Kerry 527 groups by a few wealthy individuals such as Steve Bing and George Soros.
If you live in one of the contested states, I offer my condolences. You will receive saturation advertising from the official campaigns, the parties, and the 527 support groups, plus door—to—door politicking and non—stop phone bank efforts for the next 12 weeks. The amount of money and manpower devoted either to re—electing the President or replacing him has never been seen before in American politics. But the content of the message may count for more than the frequency of the bombardment.
The Kerry campaign has made military service the centerpiece of its portrayal of the candidate's character. The Swift Boat Veterans' ads threaten to undermine the message of strength and service that the DNC worked with some success to broadcast to the country over four days. For the Bush campaign, every negative attack has already been aired, and it is difficult to imagine anything new that will surface in the remaining weeks.
Moveon.org has already told us that Bush is a liar, and that he took us to war for Big Oil. If you don't already believe that, you are probably ready to move on.
The vulnerable candidate at the moment is Kerry. The most recent polls show that Kerry received a small slightly delayed boost from the Democratic Convention, and now holds a thin lead nationally and in most battleground states, so it must be particularly disheartening for the Kerry campaign for the Swift Boat Veterans to launch their attacks at this time. But President Bush probably was not too happy either when Richard Clarke gave different public testimony than he had in private to the 9/11 Commission, and then savaged the President on 60 Minutes to help launch his book. That hoopla cost Bush a few points in the polls for a few weeks, as Clarke's accusations received very sympathetic national media coverage.
The individual Swift Boat veterans have been unhappy with John Kerry for over 30 years. That they have come together and gone public with their book and ads this week is only evidence that both sides can play the game.