RACINE, Wis.—"If you're looking for the candidate who does the best job of attacking other Democrats, I am not your guy," John Edwards told appreciative crowds during the Democratic primaries. But senator, what about attacking Republicans?
Mr. Positive needs to prove that he can go negative, or he's in danger of turning into the second coming of Joe Lieberman. When I followed Wesley Clark's campaign in New Hampshire this past December, Clark strategistChris Lehane complained about Lieberman's high-minded refusal to go negative against Bush and Cheney in 2000. As a result, Lehane said, Al Gore had to be his own hatchet man, and Gore's unfavorability ratings soared. Lieberman's jaunty smile while Dick Cheney eviscerated him during the 2000 vice presidential debate didn't endear him to Democrats, either.
Edwards isn't in Lieberman's class yet, but as the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee, he needs to jettison his carefully crafted persona as the smiling man of optimism who disdains "tired old hateful politics." During a multicandidate primary, the smilestrategy made a lot of sense. But as John Kerry's running mate in a two-man race for the presidency, Edwards' job is to engage in tired old hateful politics so that Kerry doesn't have to. That's what veeps do. And so far, Edwards hasn't been up to the task.
Edwards' day begins Monday morning in Racine, Wis., at a town hall designed to highlight upcoming changes in overtime regulations. He prefaces his remarks with a brief statement about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth controversy that has dominated the last couple weeks of the presidential campaign. Edwards must know that, for better or worse, these words will air on the cable networks and appear in the next day's news stories. The Swift boat controversy has become such a pervasive feature of the campaign that Edwards doesn't even need to explain what he's talking about.
Edwards launches into his speech with a Liebermanesque, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger critique. He contrasts the Democratic campaign's "positive vision, optimistic vision, hopeful vision about what's possible in America" with the Republicans' "relentless negative attacks" against them. "And I want to say a word about those attacks," he says. "No. 1, the claim that John Kerry did not serve this country honorably in Vietnam is a lie," proven false by news organizations and Kerry's comrades in Vietnam. "The second thing that has become clearer is that those ads are being financed by and pushed by friends of George W. Bush," he continues. Third, Edwards points out that "this is the same kind of smear campaigning and tactics that we saw against John McCain back in the 2000 presidential primary."
Edwards then gets to the heart of his complaint. He wants the president to say three little words: "Stop these ads." He says, "We're not asking the president to give us the same old rhetoric, that John Kerry's service was honorable, you know, that we're proud of his service in Vietnam. That's the same thing he was saying about John McCain when they were smearing him back in 2000." Then Edwards delivers his toughest line: "No, these ads were intended, and have been running now for about three weeks, they were intended to attack the character of John Kerry. In fact, they've shown us something about the character of George W. Bush."
But instead of elaborating on what we've learned about the president's character over the past three weeks or, even better, instead of making a careful lawyerly rebuttal of the veterans' charges, Edwards meekly says that hope is on the way. "We hope the president finally steps to the plate and does what he ought to do. All of us hope that."
I admit I'm not sure exactly what Edwards should say to respond to the veterans, but asking President Bush to condemn the Swift boat ads isn't sufficient. For one, Bush has shown that he isn't willing to do so. In fact, Bush is adroitly using the group's existence to criticize the Kerry-Edwards campaign's reliance on their own 527 groups. The line of attack that Edwards is currently taking against Bush is allowing the president to turn this into a pox-on-both-houses controversy. But if both sides are diseased, the Democrats are infecting the campaign with chicken pox while the Swift boat vets are spreading the political version of the stuff that settlers gave to Indians in blankets.
But any tactic would be better than begging Bush for mercy. Stop asking Bush to condemn the ads. Take the fight to the Swift boat vets themselves. Point out that the burden of proof is on Kerry's critics to prove their claims true, not on Kerry to prove them false. Point out that the U.S. military agrees with Kerry. Attack the president for not contradicting the smears when they're repeated by voters at "Ask President Bush" forums. Stop asking and start telling.
In the long run, the controversy could help Kerry by giving him a valid excuse to run Vietnam ads for the duration of the campaign. I still think it helps Kerry anytime the national conversation topic is John Kerry's service in Vietnam. But it has to be a conversation, not a monologue. And opening a second conversation with President Bush isn't helping. In fact, it seems to be hurting.
Kerry and Edwards are responding to Bush in the exact same way that John McCain responded in 2000 during the South Carolina primary, by attempting to publicly shame Bush into apologizing. It's a mistake. The whole McCain complex that imbues the Edwards attack on Bush is a mistake. Yes, John McCain is a Vietnam veteran, and so is John Kerry. Yes, McCain's service was smeared by allies of George W. Bush, and now the same thing is happening to John Kerry. But it's worth remembering that John McCain lost a race to George W. Bush. And if this keeps up, so will John Kerry.