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Swiftboating: A New Low in Dirty Politics

John Kerry, John Murtha and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga have all been targeted by Republican-funded smear campaigns. As the fall election cycle revs up, who will be swiftboated next?
 
 
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Political dirty tricks have long been a staple of American elections. But now there's a relatively new black art in the mix -- a form of attack politics funded to the tune of millions and featuring a wide network of surrogates eager to get into the fight. It's dirty tricks on steroids, and it's called swiftboating.

The term "swiftboating" was coined in the 2004 presidential election, when a bunch of Navy swiftboat veterans, bankrolled by Texas tycoon Robert J. Perry, formed the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and targeted Democratic candidate John Kerry. It's come a long way in a very short period of time, with Perry's original cash quadrupled and then some. The practice of swiftboating is usually applied to a candidate, particularly a veteran, but any politically active person who challenges the Republican powers-that-be can become a victim. The launch of such an attack is tantamount to a charge of cowardice, with a whiff of treason hovering somewhere nearby.

Although swiftboating was perfected in 2004, the actual practice started in 2000, when primary challenger George W. Bush went after veteran and former P.O.W. Sen. John McCain in the South Carolina primary. Veterans had formerly been off limits, but Bush's 2000 presidential campaign changed the rules forever. Now Republicans even go after generals. Bush's campaign was orchestrated by Karl Rove, whose mentor was hardball political guru Lee Atwater, and it succeeded in taking McCain out of the presidential running. Later, swiftboating was utilized by the now-disgraced Ralph Reed, who successfully attacked decorated war hero and triple amputee Sen. Max Cleland.

If a victim dares to let a swiftboat attack go unchallenged ... well, look what happened to John Kerry. Candidates have learned the hard way that they have to fight back.

Campaigns of misinformation

Swiftboating has little to do with the truth. It's a smear campaign waged on misinformation and allegations so damning the public is disinclined to give the target the benefit of the doubt. The significant money that goes into swiftboating campaigns is hidden as much as possible and used in unmistakably shifty ways. The group doing the swiftboating is usually a 527, a tax-exempt organization that can raise limitless amounts of soft money.

The next time you hear something negative about a candidate from a group you've never heard of, ask yourself who stands to gain from the attack? The next time you hear outlandish allegations popping up out of nowhere, check and see if a "Vets for Fill-in-the-Blank" group is involved. Since the success of Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, scores of similar groups have proliferated. But it doesn't have to be a group; individual candidates are taking up the task of swiftboating their opponents themselves.

I recently chronicled the Republican campaign to smear Rep. John Murtha for The Patriot Project, an organization created to combat swiftboating. However, Murtha's swiftboating goes well beyond just one group. A whole network of conservatives from news organizations and cable channels to bloggers and radio hosts is set on destroying Murtha.

The swiftboating of Rep. Murtha is the most deeply rooted and far-flung effort since the attack on John Kerry. It's even spawned a political candidate to run against Murtha in '06, Diana Irey, who has her own "Vets for Irey" site. The swiftboating began when Murtha changed his mind and spoke out about Iraq. The anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are organizing against Murtha, with original swiftboater John O'Neill launching a coordinated attack against him in October, right before elections.

Swiftboaters don't follow any rules. Even a parent caring for a deathly ill child is fair game.

Rep. Curt Weldon has been swiftboating veteran Joe Sestak for months. When Sestak's 5-year-old daughter, Alexandra, was clinging to life because of a malignant brain tumor, Weldon criticized Sestak for having his child treated at a hospital in Washington, rather than one in Philadelphia or Delaware. After that, Weldon attacked Sestak for wearing the uniform, a charge that was easily rebutted.

So, this is freedom?

The latest group is Veterans for Freedom, which will be targeting U.S. Senate candidate Ned Lamont. This group is also a 527, but has as one of its high-profile yet unpaid advisers, Dan Senor, the "former adviser to the U.S. presidential envoy in Iraq." Senor was a prominent Bush-Cheney booster. What are the chances that Vets for Freedom is nonpartisan?

What Veterans for Freedom intends, however, is quite different. Ned Lamont isn't a veteran, so Republicans are branching out with a variation on the veteran theme. They're targeting Lamont because he's for changing course in Iraq, a position Republicans will try to depict as undermining Bush's "freedom agenda" in the Middle East. It's a way to imply he's unpatriotic without saying he's un-American. Growing more inventive with each election cycle, some Republicans have even disinterred the old practice of red-baiting to use against Lamont.

Rumblings of more swiftboating activities are surfacing around the country. Paul Galanti, an original swiftboater, has launched Vets for Allen, supporting the now-beleaguered George "macaca" Allen, who is going to need all the help he can get. And anti-Kerry organizer Ted Sampley has reappeared in North Carolina to stir up the pot there.

Not just for politicians

Swiftboating isn't reserved for politicians and political candidates anymore. Arguably the web's most influential blogger, Markos Molitsas (also a veteran), has been the target of a GOP hit piece and swiftboating.

Let's not forget Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, former CIA agent Valerie Plame. Ambassador Wilson worked for the first President Bush, stood down Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War and was hailed as a hero afterward. But the lives of the Wilsons and their children were disrupted and forever changed after Joe Wilson dared to speak truth to power. Plame was actually working on WMDs at the time her name was leaked to the world. But instead of the world attacking the leakers, the leakers attacked the patriots. Wilson was called every name in the book, while his wife lost a career in which she'd earned great respect over two decades of dedication to her country.

It's hard to tell who's next, but my money is on Kristin Breitweiser, whose book, Wake-Up Call: The Political Education of a 9/11 Widow, comes out in September, to coincide with the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Ann Coulter fired the first shot at Kristin Breitweiser with an absurd screed about millionaire broads making money off of their dead husbands. Breitweiser answers Coulter in her book. But she also evidently attacks Bush (among many others) on the only plank he has left: fighting terrorism and keeping America safe. That means Republicans will come out swinging hard against Breitweiser.

Swiftboating takes dirty tricks to a new level. Keep your eyes open, because any election year is swiftboating season. Since the Republicans have so much to lose this year, Democratic candidates better get set for a very big October surprise coming from a Republican front group near you.

Taylor Marsh blogs at taylormarsh.com.