...who we are dealing with: be advised that the Swift Boat Veterans for (the Ministry of) Truth are still channeling the spirit of Lee Atwater. They rather clearly have the blessing of the Bush campaign, and their ads seem to be having an effect. As I noted earlier, I was worried about the SBVT ad from the beginning, thinking that it might very well become the Willie Horton ad of this campaign.
It's good that Kerry has chosen to respond, but Karl Rove and the gang were prepared for that, and as soon he began to defend himself, they began saying publicly that he was "losing his cool," looking "wild-eyed," and even that he had become "unhinged."
So it's come to this. Karl and his cronies have dragged the process about as far down into the muck as it can go. They collude with other groups to smear opposition candidates, refuse to repudiate the smear, and, worst of all, call that candidate's sanity into question when he does respond. And they do this to liberals, to centrists, and to moderate conservatives alike. Remember that this is what they did to McCain in South Carolina. How far does this have to go before the rest of us come to realize that this is not about the conservatives vs. the liberals, but about a struggle between conservatives, centrists, and liberals on one side and a ruthless group of thugs with no respect for democracy, the political process, or the autonomy of the voter on the other?
The new tactic gives us some inkling of how far these people are willing to go. First they generate carefully crafted lies about their opponent's character and honesty, as they did with Al Gore. If that works, they can stop there. If those attacks don't work, however, or if they are unlikely to succeed, they pull out attacks on his family, as they did with McCain (his wife was an addict, his daughter the product of an extra-marital affair (with a black woman no less!)). If those attacks fail or are unlikely to work, they'll then attack the candidate's very sanity. They suggested that McCain had been brainwashed by the North Vietnamese; now they are suggesting that Kerry has lost his grip.
This, let me say, is the final straw for me. This is no insignificant development in this race. I consider these responses challenging Kerry's sanity far more important than the SBV(M)T ads themselves, and, perhaps, the most significant development thus far.
I think you'll admit that I've been counselling restraint and prudence in this campaign. I, for example, called bullshit on Julius Civitatus's bogus "correllation" of terrorism alerts and bad news for Bush, and took grief from some of the more zealous (and credulous) liberals as a result. I have always maintained--and I still maintain--that as we conduct this campaign we have to keep in mind that we are helping to shape the nature of the American political process into the indefinite future. Dirty tricks and rhetorical excesses might help one win in the short run, but there is a terrible price to be paid in the long run. Every time we engage in such tactics--or condone such tactics by others--we make the process of democratic decision-making in America (and, perhaps, in the world) less reasonable. Every lie, every dirty trick, strikes a blow against the bedrock of reasonableness that forms the indispensible foundation for democracy.
So, I hope that it goes without saying that we must be fair and reasonable in our responses to these villains. But though fair and reasonable, our responses must now be more direct and vigorous than before. And the more unreasonable and ruthless they show themselves to be, the more important it becomes to defeat them. Consequently, it becomes more and more important that we learn to play--and be willing to play--hardball.
What does this mean? And is it possible to play hardball without using the very kinds of dirty tricks that warm the blackened little hearts of the Karl Roves and Lee Atwaters of the world? I don't know. But it is now beyond dispute that beating these villains is imperative. And I have come to think that even a significant degree of hardball-playing by the Kerry campaign presents far less risk to the process in the long term than does a Bush victory.
But my guess is that there are ways of playing hardball without becoming more like them. Perhaps the first step is to simply take on their suggestions of insanity directly, exposing them for the fascistic--I use the word advisedly-- tactics that they are. But such charges are carefully crafted to make denials of them particularly ineffective. If you put me in the position of having to assert that I am not insane, you are already halfway to victory. (And, furthermore, what good is such a denial coming from an alleged mad man?) So I think the Kerry campaign has to put these charges in context. They have to expose the long history of character assassination associated with the never-ending Bush campaign, from the smears against McCain in South Carolina, through the lies about Gore's "lies, " up to the most recent charges. List them all, and make the character issue central to the campaign. Bush already has a credibility problem, and this is just another aspect of that same problem. The lies about Iraq should be linked to the lies about Kerry, Gore, and McCain.
Perhaps Kerry should just stand up and say, in effect: listen, this is the kind of people we are up against. Such people are unworthy of holding power in America. A vote for them is a vote for a country run by lies, propaganda, and character assassination. If that's what you want, then vote for them. But if you want a fair, decent and honest government that tells you the truth and lets you make up your minds on the basis of the facts, and if you want fair, clean, respectful and sane political campaigns in which the facts are laid out plainly for your consideration, then vote for us.
But, at any rate, these most recent charges should provide a wake-up call to anyone out there who has forgotten what we are fighting for in this election, and for anyone who has gotten complacent about our lead. We are fighting against some very bad men. We have seen what they are willing to do when they think they might not get what they want--we got our first glimpse of that, in fact, during the recount (or, rather, the no-recount) debacle of 2000. But we have not yet seen everything they are willing to do. One way or another, things are going to get worse in this campaign. Either Bush will take the lead or he won't. If he does, then, of course, things will be worse. And if he doesn't, then their tactics are likely to become even more loathsome, destructive, and dangerous to democracy.