With the president descending to the most shameless sort of attack politics to save his presidency, there's an understandable desire on the part of Democrats to reopen every political vulnerability he has that has yet to be fully explored or dissected: his failure to show up for military service in the Texas Air National Guard, personal indiscretions from his 'lost years', insider deals from the various failed companies. All of it.
I have no argument with any of this. I think it makes perfect sense. To pick up on the military language that is now so ubiquitous, I think Democrats need to open up on all fronts.
But fighting fire with fire isn't a compelling message. Nor will getting into a tit-for-tat about what each of these guys was doing in 1969 or 1970 or 1971 win this race for the Democrats.
Look at the wrong direction/right direction poll numbers and you see pretty clearly that the country is looking to fire George W. Bush. The president's only hope is to get the debate on to issues like these, shift the dynamic of the race, and convince voters that, whatever their dissatisfactions with his administration, John Kerry isn't an acceptable alternative.
When this stuff comes down the pike, Kerry has to fight back mercilessly. And he can win those fights. But, fundamentally, every day of this campaign that isn't spent talking about the sluggish economy and the president's debacle in Iraq is a day wasted, a strategic failure for the Kerry campaign.
But Democrats don't have to choose between hard-hitting lines of attack on the president himself and focusing on the main issues that are facing the country today. The most damning attacks turn out to be the most compelling, the most relevant for what the country faces, and the most difficult for the president to combat.
I've said several times over recent days that it is an example of the president's moral cowardice that he has such a long record of having others savage his opponents -- for sins of which he is usually more guilty than they -- and then denying any responsibility for what's happening. It's like the moment captured in that recent Kerry campaign spot where John McCain tells Bush to stand by his attacks or apologize, and the now-president is painfully caught off guard, bereft of the protective phalanx of retainers.
He's not used to having to stand behind what he's done. And when McCain comes at him one on one he's jelly. His life has always been a matter of others doing his dirty work for him, others bailing him out. And in that moment it shows.
The current debate about these two men's military service has put the spotlight on physical courage. But that really is a side issue in this campaign, if we're talking substance. The real issue isn't physical bravery but moral cowardice.
President Bush is an examplar of that quality in spades. And it cuts directly to his failures as president. Forget about thirty years ago, just think about the last three years.
Before proceeding on to that, one other point about the two men's service. On the balance sheet of moral bravery, as opposed to physical bravery, the two men are about as far apart as you can be on Vietnam. On the one hand you have Kerry, who already had doubts about whether we should be fighting in Vietnam before he went, and put his life on the line anyway. On the other hand, you have George W. Bush who supported the war, which means he believed the goal was worth the cost in American lives. Only, not his life. He believed others should go; just not him. It's the story of his life.
That is almost the definition of moral cowardice.
We have a more immediate sense of what physical bravery and cowardice are. In fact, when we speak of bravery and cowardice, the physical variety is almost always what we're talking about. It's whether or not you can charge an enemy position while you're be fired at. It's whether you're immobilized by the fear of death.
Moral cowardice is more complex. A moral coward is someone who lacks the courage to tell the truth, to accept responsibility, to demand accountability, to do what's right when it's not the easy thing to do, to clean up his or her own messes. Perhaps we could say that moral bravery is having both the courage of your convictions as well as the courage of your misdeeds.
As I've been saying here for the last couple days, the issue isn't that Bush ducked service in Vietnam. It's that he tries to smear other people's meritorious service without taking responsibility for what he's doing. He gets other people to do his dirty work for him. Again, that image of McCain calling him on his shameless antics and his look of fear, his look of feeling trapped.
The key for the Kerry campaign to make is that the president's moral cowardice is why we're now bogged down in Iraq. It's a key reason why almost a thousand Americans have died there. President Bush has set the tone for this administration and his moral cowardice permeates it.
Consider only the most obvious examples.
The president didn't think he could convince the public of the merits of his reasons for going to war. So he lied to them. He greatly exaggerated what was thought to be the evidence of weapons of mass destruction and completely manufactured a connection between Iraq and al Qaida. He couldn't get the country behind him on the up-and-up. So he took the easy way out; he took a shortcut; he deceived them. And now the country is paying a terrible price for it.
He and his advisors knew that if they levelled with the public about the costs of war -- in dollars, years, soldiers -- he'd have a very hard time convincing them. So he didn't level with them. He took the easy way out.
The sort of forward planning that would have made a big difference in post-war Iraq was scuttled or attacked because it would make the job of selling the war harder. Those who sounded the alarm had their careers cut short.
Once we were in Iraq and it was clear that we had been wrong about the weapons of mass destruction -- a judgement that's been clear for more than a year -- he wouldn't admit it. And he still hasn't. A year and a half after we invaded Iraq and he still can't level with the American people about this. He still relies on his vice president to try to fool people into thinking Hussein was tied to al Qaida and the 9/11 attacks.
More importantly, once it became clear that the president's plans for post-war Iraq were producing poor results, he refused to shift policy or to reshuffle his team. He refused to demand accountability from his own team because of how it would have reflected on him. He's preferred to continue on with demonstrably failed policies because to do otherwise would be to admit he'd made a mistake and open himself to all the political fall-out that entails. And that's not something he's willing to do.
The stubborn refusal ever to change course, which the president tries to pass off as a sign of leadership or devotion to principle, is actually an example of his cowardice.
For the same reasons, he runs from soldiers' funerals like they were burying victims of the plague -- because it's the easy way out. If there's a problem, he denies it or finds someone else to take the fall for him.
Everyone has these tendencies in their measure. No one is perfect. But they define George W. Bush.
The same sort of moral cowardice that led him to support the Vietnam war but decide it wasn't for him, run companies into the ground and let others pay the bill, play gutter politics but run for the hills when someone asks him to say it to their face, those are the same qualities that led the president to lie the country into war, fail to prepare for the aftermath and then refuse to take responsibility for any of it when the bill started to come due.
That's the argument John Kerry needs to be making. And he needs to make it right now.