COLUMBUS, Ohio—For the past few days, John Edwards has been standing in the middle of a river in the middle of a war, watching as enemy soldiers shoot at his commanding officer. His response? To call the other side's general and ask him to get the soldiers to stop. The general said he condemns all war, it's hell you know, and he sure wishes that all soldiers would lay down their weapons. Perhaps Edwards' CO would join him in that condemnation? Meanwhile, the officer was dying. So on Tuesday, Edwards finally decided to start firing back.
He's still pleading on the phone with President Bush, sure, but at least he's wielding a pistol in his other hand while he's doing it. Maybe it's because Edwards is in Ohio, one of the three states where the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads have actually aired, but his remarks to the state AFL-CIO convention are angrier, more forceful, and more effective than the ones he made Monday in Wisconsin. They're also different in a subtle way. In addition to saying the ads are lies and asking the president to condemn them, Edwards adds two components: He reiterates the most heroic components of Kerry's war record, and he describes the Swift boat veterans as a front group that aims to do more than obscure the person of President Bush. Its attacks are designed to obscure the record of his administration.
It doesn't sound like much—in fact it's pretty obvious—but it makes a huge difference. Again, Edwards broaches the subject by saying that he wants to talk about "what's been happening" in the campaign, and everyone immediately knows what he means. Again, he says that "it's a lie" paid for by "George Bush's friends." If Bush had "backbone and courage and leadership," he would ask his friends to pull the ads from the air, Edwards says. "Yesterday he had a chance" to do that "because he spoke for the first time, instead of having a spokesperson speak on his behalf. Instead of standing behind a front group, he spoke on his own behalf for the first time on this subject. And what did we get? We got a typical politician's answer, a non-answer." Edwards says that "every day that this goes on," he will demand that Bush tell the group to pull its ads.
Then Edwards takes advantage of the controversy to take a moment to restate Kerry's heroics. This is the big plus of the Swift ads for Kerry. Without them, the stories of how the Democratic nominee saved a man's life 30 years ago would have grown tiresome and induce eye-rolling by now. But with Kerry's service being slandered, the tale still has force. Kerry's crewmates "saw him save one of his crewmates, pull him out of a river," Edwards says. "Saw him turn his boat around in the middle of battle and drive it through enemy position in order to save his crew. Strong, decisive, courageous, is that not what we deserve in our commander in chief?"
In response to this tactic, the Bush campaign has been reduced to comparing the president to Bill Clinton. Tuesday morning, the campaign e-mailed a statement from campaign chairman Marc Racicot to reporters that read, in part, that the Kerry campaign is trying "to divide America by who served and how—something that John Kerry said we should never do when he declared during the 1992 campaign, 'We do not need to divide America over who served and how.' " (This despite the fact that four years ago, Bush took affront when John McCain compared him to the 42nd president. "Do not compare me to Bill Clinton," Bush said, pronouncing the name "Clin-TAWN," as if it were a new species of evil Star Trek alien.)
But the new line taken by Edwards is based on more than a comparison of the Vietnam records of Kerry and Bush. The reason the Swift boat veterans want to focus on the past, Edwards suggests, the reason they must resort to "a campaign based on fear and lies," is because the present is so miserable. "During the last three weeks or so that these ads have been running, that they've been focused on this personal, negative attack on John Kerry, what's happened here in the state of Ohio?" Edwards asks. "Forty-five-hundred people have filed for bankruptcy. Four proud military men and women" from Ohio have lost their lives in Iraq. "The price of a barrel of oil has gone up $5."
It's not perfect, and it may not be enough. But when Edwards returns to his favored buzzwords of optimism and hope and positive campaigning, he sounds even phonier than usual. It's about time.