Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Been There, Done That

John Kerry has fought opponents more vitriolic than Karl Rove, according to Don Payne in Salon.com. And won.

Traitor. Two-faced. Aloof. Elitist. Sixties radical. Tax-and-spend liberal. Spoiled aristocrat. These are the familiar charges leveled against Sen. John Kerry. But they weren’t invented by the Bush campaign. They’re the same charges he has had to endure as long as he has run for office in Massachusetts. And in every race but one, his first, he took on his critics and won.

While President Bush and the country were enduring an awful week of hearings about 9/11 intelligence failures, and of widespread death and chaos in Iraq, Kerry did not join the fray. Instead he delivered a curiously timed economics speech. In not capitalizing on the disasters rocking the Bush administration, Kerry was, I hope, invoking the rule that in politics one should never commit homicide on an opponent who is committing suicide. Moreover, no one should have expected the Vietnam veteran to make political hay over the death of American soldiers. Even as the bloody violence in Iraq led critics, chief among them Kerry’s Senate seat mate Ted Kennedy, to declare Iraq was becoming Bush’s Vietnam, Bush campaign strategists were trying to use Vietnam against Kerry, rehashing old allegations that the decorated veteran’s opposition to the war in which he heroically served was somehow unpatriotic, or worse.

But Kerry has endured bad weeks before, and the Vietnam smear campaign in particular isn’t likely to work. Such strategies have been tried, and have failed, in virtually every race Kerry has ever run for public office. It’s worth comparing Kerry with his fellow Massachussetts Democrat Michael Dukakis to understand why Kerry is more likely to prevail. For Kerry, unlike Dukakis, Massachusetts was a crucible that readied him for the national battle ahead. Dukakis’ toughest fights were primaries. Kerry has had to run in both difficult primaries and general elections. In every case, he seems to need to feel the shape and impact of the attacks before he acts, which frustrates supporters who panic in the heat of battle and expect Kerry to act precipitously. But as soon as Kerry judges that the charges he’s facing are similar to those he has faced before, he and those who have been with him know what to do, almost by instinct — even if they disappoint the Beltway by not responding in the next e-mail.

Kerry’s election is by no means certain, but he will not lose because he was thrown off balance by what will be hurled at him in the months ahead.

To paraphrase what the immortal Immanuel Kant might have said about Karl Rove: “Let’s let him sweat.”