Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

A thought about the follow-up on the Swift Boat ads.

Today at a rally, John Edwards said, among other things, "This is a moment of truth for George W. Bush. We're going to see what kind of man he is and what kind of leader he is. ... We want to hear three words: Stop these ads."

Okay for today. But no more of this.

We already know what kind of a man he is. He's got a track record.

I'm tempted to say, if we didn't, why run against him? But of course political differences between good men are more than adequate justifications for a presidential contest -- consider Clinton v. Dole in 1996.

But that's not the case here. So, to be frank, this line has some element of disingenuousness.

Far more important, it's whining. Begging. At a minimum, it can come off or be characterized that way. And it sounds weak. This is about hitting back, not flaunting high-mindedness.

If the president's behavior is really as bad as the Kerry-Edwards team is saying it is, then it's really past the point of asking him to do the right thing and redeem himself.

The excellent ad the Kerry campaign put out today -- the one with McCain confronting Bush -- ends with the line "America can do better."

It doesn't say, "George W. Bush, please stop" or "George W. Bush should do the right thing." It says "America can do better" or, in other words, he's shown us what kind of person he is and he shouldn't be president.

No need to be nasty. "America can do better" says all that needs be said. Drive that point home and move the debate back to the president's failed record at home and abroad.

Try "George W. Bush is back to his old tricks because he doesn't want to talk about X (his bad record on jobs), Y (his failed policies in Iraq), Z (you get the idea.)"

A few days ago the Kerry campaign put together a new ad with Jim Rassman, the guy who Kerry plucked out of the water under fire three decades ago. Given all that's happened, it was probably necessary to put the eyewitness in front of voters to rebut the charges of the Swift Boat group. That said, I didn't find it a terribly effective ad. Okay, but not great.

That's certainly no fault of Rassman's or even necessarily the Kerry campaign. But to the extent that this whole bundle of issues has become an issue, it's not going to be won by divining whether there was hostile fire in the air when this one incident happened. It's necessary to validate Kerry's good faith recollection in order not to lose, but it's not sufficient to win.

Today, though, the Kerry campaign came out with a very powerful ad, one which in its tone and focus is exactly where the Kerry campaign needs to go.

It's called Old Tricks and the entire ad is a brief exchange from a debate from February 15th 2000 (which the political junkies among us probably remember) in which John McCain -- then in the thick of Bush's smears -- told Bush to his face to stop getting others to smear him over his war record. He ends by telling him he should be ashamed. The camera focuses on Bush and catches him not knowing how to respond, with what I think even his supporters would have to agree is a callow, trapped look on his face.

I say this is exactly where the Kerry campaign needs to go because it very powerfully captures a truth about President Bush -- namely, that he's a coward who truly lacks shame.

I don't say he's a coward because he kept himself out of Vietnam three decades ago. I know no end of men of that age who in one fashion or another made sure they didn't end up in Indochina in those days. (I quickly ran through both hands counting guys I talk to on a regular basis.) And they include many of the most admirable people I know.

He's a coward because he has other people smear good men without taking any responsibility, without owning up to it or standing behind it. And when someone takes it to him and puts him on the spot to defend his actions -- as McCain does in this spot -- he's literally speechless. Like I say, a coward.

As I said earlier, this is vintage Bush. And it's also a subtle nod to all the ways that Bush is someone who's always gotten by with help at all the key moments from family friends, retainers and others similarly hunting for access and power.

There's another element to this ad that we'd be remiss not to note too. It puts McCain on the spot and pulls him right back to the center of this battle. Given the fervor of his words, he can hardly disavow them or complain of their use. But there's something else too. If you listen to the ad you'll see McCain hangs his demand for an apology on a letter signed by five senators, each Vietnam vets, calling on Bush to apologize for his smears against McCain.

The five, as reported by the Times on February 5th, 2000: Senators Max Cleland of Georgia, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Charles S. Robb of Virginia, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

From The Chicago Tribune ...

The commander of a Navy swift boat who served alongside Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry during the Vietnam War stepped forward Saturday to dispute attacks challenging Kerry's integrity and war record.

William Rood, an editor on the Chicago Tribune's metropolitan desk, said he broke 35 years of silence about the Feb. 28, 1969, mission that resulted in Kerry's receiving a Silver Star because recent portrayals of Kerry's actions published in the best-selling book "Unfit for Command" are wrong and smear the reputations of veterans who served with Kerry.

Rood, who commanded one of three swift boats during that 1969 mission, said Kerry came under rocket and automatic weapons fire from Viet Cong forces and that Kerry devised an aggressive attack strategy that was praised by their superiors. He called allegations that Kerry's accomplishments were "overblown" untrue.

"The critics have taken pains to say they're not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us. It's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there," Rood said in a 1,700-word first-person account published in Sunday's Tribune.

Rood's recollection of what happened on that day at the southern tip of South Vietnam was backed by key military documents, including his citation for a Bronze Star he earned in the battle and a glowing after-action report written by the Navy captain who commanded his and Kerry's task force, who is now a critic of the Democratic candidate.

Rood's previously untold story and the documents shed new light on a key historical event that has taken center stage in an extraordinary political and media firestorm generated by a group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Here's <$Ad$>the article from which that passage comes. The 1,700 word account apparently comes in tomorrow's paper.

As I said, I think the Kerry campaign is right to go aggressively on the attack against the president for running his campaign this way and seeking to profit politically from this garbage. But that's not enough. Kerry's surrogates have to go aggressively on the attack against the president on all his many points of vulnerability, which are legion -- his dishonesty about his own gap-ridden service in the Texas Air National Guard, his White House's on-going efforts to cover up the Plame leak, the endless record of deceptions tied to the Iraq invasion, all of it.

Counterattacking on the president's shameless behavior on the Swift Boat matter is necessary, but hardly sufficient. To be successful, Kerry and his team and his surrogates (you know, the folks he's on a first name basis with but doesn't know from Adam and can't control in any way) need to place the president on the defensive across the board.

This whole Swift Boat episode is entirely in keeping not just with the record of George W. Bush, but, to be frank, his whole family. Think back to the 1988 and 1992 presidential races. Partly, it's in the their political DNA. But it's also in the nature of blue bloods trying to ape populist politics -- for the key example, see the 1992 GOP convention in Houston and the sad antics of Bush family retainer Rich Bond.

I said a few days ago that it was ridiculous to compare the ads run by Moveon to the Swift Boat ones. And it's true -- they're very soft soap in comparison. But that's a mistake. They should be hitting much harder.

The president has chosen the ground on which he wants to fight this campaign. And as per usual he's mobilized friends and family retainers to do the fighting for him. The president is playing tackle football, not touch or flag. If the Dems keep up with the latter they'll lose.

Back in the primaries John Kerry would say that if the Bushies thought they could pull a Max Cleland on him, he'd say, "Bring it on." Well, it's on.

My sense of Kerry is almost entirely defined by watching his 1996 race against Bill Weld up close. So I think he has it in him to fight. But now's when we find out.

Apropos the Bitch Slap theory, see these coordinated comments from the Bush campaign, reported in this article in the Post ...

Underscoring how personal the dispute has become, Bush's campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, went on CNN and said the Kerry campaign has come "unhinged," and that Kerry himself "looks wild-eyed." Earlier yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Kerry is "losing his cool." In 2000, the Bush campaign used similar language to portray rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as potentially too unstable to run the country.

It's the same cowardly rich-boy viciousness we've seen so many times from this guy and his family. But the Post piece gives some sobering signs about how effective it's been.

I thought we might have closed the door on further entries in the contest to see which Illinois Republican luminary could deliver the most anemic or feeble endorsement of Mr. Keyes.

But for longtime Illinois Governor Jim Edgar let's allow one more nominee.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Edgar told the GOP State Central Committee: "I think Alan Keyes, he'll be fun. He's intelligent, he's articulate and he's entertaining, which is important for the media, because that's the business they're in."

Late Update: My friend Rick Klau has put a list of nominations for the best feeble endorsement up on his website. My favorite is the one he found from Sen. Dale Risinger, R-Peoria: “We’re going to support Alan Keyes and hope for the best.”

When they put together the anthology or college class source book of early 21st century popular political discourse they may include this column by Deborah Orin as the template example of the product of the right-wing agitprop machine, with all the familiar tactics and methods bundled together in one place.

In its own dark way it's almost irresistible, like slowing down on the highway to take in a really bad car wreck. You should really read it, with particular attention to the familiar tactic of using one discredited or unproven claim to add weight to another discredited or unproven claim -- something we might call the probabilism of innuendo.

Amazing. President Bush isn't even man enough to answer a straight question about these Swift Boat ads. (You'll have to pardon my antiquated and gendered language. But I'm not sure English has any more presentable way to convey the same meaning.) Not only will Bush not answer them. He won't even let his press secretary do so.

As we've noted, these ads are funded by the president's financial backers, put together by his political associates from Texas, and obviously meant to support his campaign.

Just one example from the Austin American-Statesman may serve to illustrate the point ...

The [Swift Boat] group was organized last spring with the assistance of Merrie Spaeth, a Republican public relations executive from Houston, who also was a public relations consultant to independent counsel Kenneth Starr during his investigation of former Democratic President Bill Clinton. Her late husband, Tex Lezar, ran for lieutenant governor of Texas on George W. Bush's GOP ticket in 1994.

Obviously folks he's never <$Ad$>had any contact with at all.

In any real world sense, this is a front for the president. And for the saps who are willing to give the president the most improbable benefits of the doubt -- that this is something he has nothing to do with and is utterly beyond his control -- well, he won't even toss them a bone by making even the most innocuous statement of disassociation. (Talk about being someone's ... well, you get the idea.)

In addition to this, as we noted yesterday, the president now goes around the country with his 'Ask the President' town hall meetings and uses them as a forum where questioners repeat these slurs without, again, his making even the most perfunctory statements of disassociation. ("Well, I respect your views, sir. And I appreciate your support. But I don't want to question Mr. Kerry's service.")

The example we noted yesterday evening from Oregon a week ago ...

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, sir. Q On behalf of Vietnam veterans -- and I served six tours over there -- we do support the President. I only have one concern, and that's on the Purple Heart, and that is, is that there are over 200,000 Vietnam vets that died from Agent Orange and were never -- no Purple Heart has ever been awarded to a Vietnam veteran because of Agent Orange because it's never been changed in the regulations. Yet, we've got a candidate for President out here with two self-inflicted scratches, and I take that as an insult. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you for your service. Six tours? Whew. That's a lot of tours.

Let's see, who've we got here? You got a question?

Now, today Scott McClellan got asked about these ads again and again. And he kept refusing to answer the question, insisting on reframing the question as one about unregulated soft-money (that is, 527s) and all the "shadowy groups" that are out there attacking president. (In other words, this is no different from the Moveon ads that say Bush has piled up a deficit for our grandchildren or accusing him of misleading the country about Iraqi WMD) After hitting on the question again and again, that led to this exchange in which the Oregon incident finally gets brought up ...

Q Well, the charge, though, has been made not just in advertisements, but it has now been made directly to the President.

MR. McCLELLAN: And there have been a lot of false, negative charges made against the President by these shadowy groups. So if he would join us, we could get rid of all of this unregulated soft money activity.

Q Let me ask it this way: The President has said and believes that John Kerry served honorably in Vietnam, right?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, he's made that very clear. We've made it very clear that we will not make his -- will never raise questions about his service. We haven't, and we won't.

Q This advertisement raises questions about his service, and in fact concludes that he served dishonorably. So the President thinks this ad is false, right?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the issue here is these unregulated soft money groups that exist. The campaign finance reforms were passed in order to get rid of this kind of activity. Yet there is a loophole in the law, and the FEC has refused to address it. We think that all of this activity should be stopped.

Q Could I follow on that? Because what Terry seems to be getting at, what's clear from this event that Bush had last week --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's not be selective here. Let's look at the overall activity that's going on by all of these shadowy groups. I think we're being a little selective right now. And Senator Kerry is being -- is trying to have it all ways, yet again. He says one thing, while his campaign goes out there and does another thing.

As I said, afraid to answer the question. Afraid to stand up. Just ... afraid.

Maybe pops can pull some strings. Remember, he used to be a congressman from Houston.

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.

"Let's get some things straight here. There is a right-wing slime machine. It has kicked into gear with this phony attack on Kerry's military record. Bush benefits from the ad and condones it. And if Kerry doesn't hit back harder, it could cost him the election."

That's a quote from Jacob Weisberg, Editor of Slate, from an exchange he has with his colleague Will Saletan today about the Swift Boat ads and a contending ad from Moveon.org which questions President Bush's military service.

The exchange is quite worth your while to read for several reasons.

First of all, Saletan takes the Swift-Boat ad and in a few crisp paragraphs shows how all the charges are either unfalsifiable claims about Kerry's character (i.e., he sucks, isn't a good guy, isn't trustworthy, etc.), ones that have no basis in available evidence, or -- in more cases -- are specifically contradicted by the available evidence.

Will likely would have been aided in this work of demolition by this new front page article from tomorrow's The Washington Post. Larry Thurlow is one of Kerry's most vocal critics. He's a member of the Swift Boat group; he's in the group that put out the ads, etc. Thurlow's claim to fame is his contention that Kerry's boat wasn't actually under fire in a 1969 incident for which Kerry was awarded a Bronze Star.

The Post asked Thurlow to release his records. He refused because "he was unwilling to authorize release of his military records because he feared attempts by the Kerry campaign to discredit him and other anti-Kerry veterans." It seems he had some reason for concern. The Post got the records from a Freedom of Information Act request; and they back up Kerry's version of events.

On the one hand it's tempting to smile or take some grim satisfaction in seeing this character hoisted on his own petard. But doing so would give these guys too much credit. Catching a liar lying isn't a coup; it's a definition. Indeed, these aren't just lies. The whole campaign is probably literally libelous -- an effort coordinated between various parts of the right-wing slime machine, as Weisberg aptly calls it.

What Weisberg also makes clear is how ridiculous it is to even compare the Swift Boat ad with those now being run by Moveon.org. One has demonstrable falsehoods, while the other contains two statements which are certainly true and have been reported by newspapers around the country (viz, that Bush got into the Guard with family connections and was later grounded) and another that is almost certainly true but not provable from available evidence (viz, that he 'went missing').

There is a great desire among journalists to appear even-handed in such cases and create equivalences where there simply are none. And this is a great case of that. This is the sort of character assassination that our domestic Falange specializes in, the sort of effort that the standard Washington types usually lament as a grievous wrong several years after it happens, but never at the time. The effort is being put together by the president's supporters. He is benefitting greatly from it. And he and his aides have gone out of their way not to criticize it in any way.

On the campaign trail President Bush makes no effort to distance himself from it at all. Quite the contrary, in fact, as in this exchange from an 'Ask President Bush' session last Friday in Oregon ...


Q On behalf of Vietnam veterans -- and I served six tours over there -- we do support the President. I only have one concern, and that's on the Purple Heart, and that is, is that there are over 200,000 Vietnam vets that died from Agent Orange and were never -- no Purple Heart has ever been awarded to a Vietnam veteran because of Agent Orange because it's never been changed in the regulations. Yet, we've got a candidate for President out here with two self-inflicted scratches, and I take that as an insult. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you for your service. Six tours? Whew. That's a lot of tours.

Let's see, who've we got here? You got a question?

What a stand-up guy ...

In any case, Kerry does need to hit back harder. Probably not directly, as that might exacerbate the problem, but with surrogates who will hit back much harder and start putting into play the president's record if he doesn't relent. Really, though, this comes back to the press, whether they'll allow the president to play the silent accomplice in this character assassination and pay no price for his actions.

As Weisberg puts it, "The ad is a carefully crafted lie ... beyond vile."

Unfortunately, lies like this, once uttered, are impossible to counter in their entirety, just as mud thrown against a wall makes a terrible mess even though it doesn't stick. The only way to counter such misdeeds is to shine a light on those cynical and deceitful enough to seek to gain from them. That would be the president and his supporters. But on this front most of the media are content to act as indifferent bystanders to the offense.

In the department of races I've been watching, let me mention a new poll out from Connecticut's 2nd District, where incumbent Republican Rob Simmons is facing Jim Sullivan.

The 2nd District is basically the eastern half of the state (see here), an area that I can fairly call myself an expert on, as long as we stick to how things were in the 1600s. About the area's more recent history, I know pretty little.

That ignorance aside, however, a new poll out, commissioned by the Sullivan campaign and the DCCC, has Simmons up by two points over Sullivan, 41% to 39% among likely voters. The poll was taken on August 11th and 12th and had a sample size of 504 likely voters.

Now, that's a relatively small sample size, though not so small for a congressional district poll. And the poll was commissioned by the challenger. Still, it shows a basically dead-even race and an incumbent that is deep down in the danger zone at 41%. Add in the fact that the most recent Quinnipiac poll put President Bush's approval rating in the state at 37% and you've got a very winnable race for the Democrats.

Give this race a look. Here's Sullivan's site.