Well it seems there

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Well, it seems there wasn’t something in the air.

I didn’t know the Kerry campaign was finally going to return fire today over this Swift Boat nonsense. But this morning, in a speech to the International Association of Fire Fighters in Boston, he responded squarely to the attacks. You can see complete text of the speech and the new response-ad they’re running. But the key point is that he aimed his remarks at precisely the right target …

Over the last week or so, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has been attacking me. Of course, this group isn’t interested in the truth – and they’re not telling the truth. They didn’t even exist until I won the nomination for president.

But here’s what you really need to know about them. They’re funded by hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Republican contributor out of Texas. They’re a front for the Bush campaign. And the fact that the President won’t denounce what they’re up to tells you everything you need to know—he wants them to do his dirty work.

Thirty years ago, official Navy reports documented my service in Vietnam and awarded me the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Thirty years ago, this was the plain truth. It still is. And I still carry the shrapnel in my leg from a wound in Vietnam.

As firefighters you risk your lives everyday. You know what it’s like to see the truth in the moment. You’re proud of what you’ve done—and so am I.

Of course, the President keeps telling people he would never question my service to our country. Instead, he watches as a Republican-funded attack group does just that. Well, if he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: “Bring it on.”

This is a good thing — and not simply because Kerry has to respond to the president’s surrogates who are trying <$Ad$>(and, to an extent, succeeding) in damaging his candidacy with scurrilous and discredited attacks.

There is a meta-debate going on here, one that I’m not sure even the practitioners fully articulate to themselves and one that I’m painfully aware the victims don’t fully understand.

Let’s call it the Republicans’ Bitch-Slap theory of electoral politics.

It goes something like this.

On one level, of course, the aim behind these attacks is to cast suspicion upon Kerry’s military service record and label him a liar. But that’s only part of what’s going on.

Consider for a moment what the big game is here. This is a battle between two candidates to demonstrate toughness on national security. Toughness is a unitary quality, really — a personal, characterological quality rather than one rooted in policy or divisible in any real way. So both sides are trying to prove to undecided voters either that they’re tougher than the other guy or at least tough enough for the job.

In a post-9/11 environment, obviously, this question of strength, toughness or resolve is particularly salient. That, of course, is why so much of this debate is about war and military service in the first place.

One way — perhaps the best way — to demonstrate someone’s lack of toughness or strength is to attack them and show they are either unwilling or unable to defend themselves — thus the rough slang I used above. And that I think is a big part of what is happening here. Someone who can’t or won’t defend themselves certainly isn’t someone you can depend upon to defend you.

Demonstrating Kerry’s unwillingness to defend himself (if Bush can do that) is a far more tangible sign of what he’s made of than wartime experiences of thirty years ago.

Hitting someone and not having them hit back hurts the morale of that person’s supporters, buoys the confidence of your own backers (particularly if many tend toward an authoritarian mindset) and tends to make the person who’s receiving the hits into an object of contempt (even if also possibly also one of sympathy) in the eyes of the uncommitted.

This is certainly what Bush’s father did to Michael Dukakis and, sadly, it is what Bush himself did, to a great degree, to Al Gore.

In other ways, Bush’s bully-boy campaign tactics play to his strengths, albeit unstated and unlovely ones. Many of the polls of the president have shown that while people don’t necessarily agree with the specific policies he’s pursued abroad many also intuitively believe that there’s no one who will hit back harder. There’s some of that ‘he may be a son-of-a-bitch but he’s our son-of-a-bitch’ quality to the president’s support on national security issues.

This meta-message behind the president’s attacks on Kerry’s war record is more consequential than many believe. So hitting back hard was critical on many levels.

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