Commentary Magazine


Topic: Swift Boat Veterans

New Defense of Obama Tactics: Blame Bush

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, to his credit, can’t quite bring himself to equate the Obama campaign’s insinuations that Mitt Romney is culpable in the death of innocents with the Romney campaign’s attacks on President Obama’s controversial welfare executive order. But he does happen to have another justification of the Obama campaign’s rhetorical excesses, and it’s one that should come naturally to Obama: it’s all Bush’s fault.

“What’s different this time,” Milbank writes, “is that the Democrats are employing the same harsh tactics that have been used against them for so long, with so much success.” And what finally pushed the Democrats over the edge was the defeat of John Kerry. Milbank writes that Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, who was caught making false claims about the now-infamous murder ad and her role in orchestrating that line of attack, was especially affected by that election. He writes:

Eight years ago, Cutter was a staffer on the Kerry campaign when the candidate was undone by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on his war record. Cutter, like other Democrats, learned a hard truth back then: Umbrage doesn’t win elections. Ruthlessness does.

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The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, to his credit, can’t quite bring himself to equate the Obama campaign’s insinuations that Mitt Romney is culpable in the death of innocents with the Romney campaign’s attacks on President Obama’s controversial welfare executive order. But he does happen to have another justification of the Obama campaign’s rhetorical excesses, and it’s one that should come naturally to Obama: it’s all Bush’s fault.

“What’s different this time,” Milbank writes, “is that the Democrats are employing the same harsh tactics that have been used against them for so long, with so much success.” And what finally pushed the Democrats over the edge was the defeat of John Kerry. Milbank writes that Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, who was caught making false claims about the now-infamous murder ad and her role in orchestrating that line of attack, was especially affected by that election. He writes:

Eight years ago, Cutter was a staffer on the Kerry campaign when the candidate was undone by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on his war record. Cutter, like other Democrats, learned a hard truth back then: Umbrage doesn’t win elections. Ruthlessness does.

Now, Milbank gets much about the Kerry election wrong–and as Jonathan wrote, he isn’t the only one to try to use the Swift Boat veterans against the GOP this time–but he’s right in his conclusion: negative campaigning tends to be effective, and the Obama campaign is far more concerned with winning than adhering to honest electioneering. It may be true that Cutter learned from the Kerry debacle to turn this campaign into a carnival of obscene personal attacks and extraordinarily irresponsible unfounded accusations—but that’s not the case with the president.

As Victor Davis Hanson wrote at NRO, Obama knows the “Chicago way” works because he’s never run any other kind of campaign:

Obama demolished his U.S. Senate Democratic primary rival through leaked divorce records. He demolished his initial Republican rival through leaked divorce records. When he got through with Hillary Clinton, the liberal former first lady and U.S. senator had transmogrified into a prevaricating hack and veritable racist, as Bill Clinton lamented the race card being played. John McCain released his health records and his general dismal ranking at Annapolis, leading to a false narrative that he was naturally inattentive and reckless, and scarcely hale, while Obama released neither his medical nor his college records; as Sarah Palin — heretofore a reformist governor of Alaska who in bipartisan fashion had fought special interests — was reduced to a caricature of an uninformed poor (and trashy) mom. All of the above transpired while Barack Obama ran as a “reformer” and proponent of “civility,” who vowed to run a “transparent” campaign of full disclosure, and to leave the old “petty” and “gotcha” politics behind.

The fiction that Democrats like to tell themselves about the 2004 Bush-Kerry election grows out of their refusal to admit what everybody knew: Kerry was an absurd candidate, produced by a bizarre primary season. In the end, they nominated for president a man who made a big show of tossing away his Vietnam War ribbons and smearing his fellow soldiers—to challenge a wartime president, no less. To compensate for this, that nomination took place, as Andrew Ferguson wrote in COMMENTARY, “in a hall festooned with so much military paraphernalia and overrun by so many saluting veterans that you might have thought you were watching a Latin American coup.”

It is also the case that Kerry didn’t think much of the American people he was asking to lead, and it showed. In one of Matt Taibbi’s columns about the 2004 election, he writes that he noticed Kerry was using a quote from George Bernard Shaw in his speeches,

but he always introduces it by saying, “He (Ted Kennedy) quoted the poet who said…” When I asked a Kerry spokesman why Kerry didn’t just say the poet’s name out loud, he told me that the average voter might be confused by the mention of too many academic references.

It turned out that the “average voter” was smarter than Kerry gave him credit for—smart enough to vote against Kerry. The sooner the Democrats make peace with Kerry’s failed candidacy, the better. There are many things Obama was able to blame on Bush, but the negativity of this election isn’t one of them.

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Anger Over Obama Leaks Isn’t Swift Boat II

Democrats are trying to portray ex-intelligence officials who are publicly criticizing the Obama administration’s leaking of sensitive material in order to boost the president’s political standing as partisans. They think by merely saying the words “Swift Boat,” the group, which calls itself Special Operations Opsec Education Fund, will be ignored or reviled. But the comparison to those Navy veterans who blasted John Kerry’s record during the 2004 campaign is not apt. Whatever the motivation of the original Swift Boat veterans, their beef was a personal grudge against Kerry. The issue the Opsec group is highlighting is a serious problem that has already resulted in federal investigations of the White House’s behavior.

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Democrats are trying to portray ex-intelligence officials who are publicly criticizing the Obama administration’s leaking of sensitive material in order to boost the president’s political standing as partisans. They think by merely saying the words “Swift Boat,” the group, which calls itself Special Operations Opsec Education Fund, will be ignored or reviled. But the comparison to those Navy veterans who blasted John Kerry’s record during the 2004 campaign is not apt. Whatever the motivation of the original Swift Boat veterans, their beef was a personal grudge against Kerry. The issue the Opsec group is highlighting is a serious problem that has already resulted in federal investigations of the White House’s behavior.

The White House is particularly unhappy because the group’s efforts threaten to tarnish the one tangible achievement of this administration: the killing of Osama bin Laden. The operation that ended the life of the arch terrorist was a brilliant military maneuver but it has become a political totem for the president. The killing has allowed him to pretend that a record of foreign policy failure has somehow been transformed into one of unadulterated success. While the president deserves credit for giving the okay for the strike (after reportedly refusing to do it three previous times), the shameless manner with which the administration blabbed classified information so as to portray Obama and his staff as fearless war leaders understandably angered the intelligence community. More importantly, it was just one more instance in which the White House leaked secrets for political gain. While the investigations of these leaks by two U.S. Attorneys may eventually lead to serious consequences for some individuals, the president shouldn’t be surprised that there is going to be some political damage as well.

The Swift Boat attacks on Kerry were controversial because they were seen as an unfair attempt to besmirch a decorated veteran who did face enemy fire. Kerry’s fellow veterans resented his portrayal as a hero and were bitter about his unconscionable attacks on fellow serviceman after he returned home from Vietnam. But whatever you may think about that dispute, there really is no comparison to criticism of Obama’s promiscuous leaking of classified material.

This is an administration that hasn’t hesitated to blab details about the most important covert operations and research, such as cyber warfare and the drone attacks on terrorists, so as to paint the president as a great man. The White House has clearly broken the law but it is unclear whether they will be made to pay for these violations since Obama appointees rather than an independent special prosecutor are conducting the investigations.

It should also be admitted that some of the anger about the leaks about the bin Laden operation are due to natural resentment by those who carry out such operations at the way the president’s team has used them as props in his re-election campaign. The president rarely makes a speech without mentioning bin Laden’s killing, and while he has given proper credit to those who actually risked their lives on this mission, there’s little doubt that the White House has worked hard to paint him as the true “hero” of the story.

While the election will not be won or lost on this issue, the blowback on the leaks is a lesson for all political leaders. Presidents who seek to take the lion’s share of the credit for the actions of those who serve in the military and who leak information to puff their own reputations will always be resented for doing so. Rather than blasting the Opsec veterans, what is needed from the administration is a little more humility from the commander-in-chief.

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