Kerry On Offense

Election '04

The Democratic National Committee and operative Howard Wolfson certainly took a lot of heat for "Operation Fortunate Son," the tough public-relations campaign they initiated to put the questions about President Bush's National Guard service on the front burner. Wolfson was repeatedly denounced by the usual suspects on cable television, The Weekly Standard criticized the operation (while the "Swift" Boat veterans, of course, raised legitimate questions about John Kerry!?!), and even a lot of Democrats were heard to mutter their discomfort at the party opening up this personal front against the incumbent.

I had my own set of reservations, having to do with whether Bush's National Guard service is really the point anymore. That is, I think this would have been a wonderful line of attack in 2000, when voters didn't know George W. Bush and he had no track record on foreign policy and national security. There seems almost no doubt that if Al Gore's campaign had chosen to question Bush's Guard record aggressively, Bush would not be president today. But that was four years ago. Now, Bush has a record; people have had a chance to watch him for four years and decide whether his actions in office have earned him another trip to the plate. So I didn't consider the National Guard all that relevant, and I'm still not convinced that it is, unless a clear smoking gun can be handed to the media that proves Bush has been lying for years about some aspect of the story.

But lo and behold, it would appear that "Operation Fortunate Son" has worked.

According a recent poll by FOX, Bush's lead over Kerry among veterans stood, on the September 21 and 22 dates on which the poll was conducted, at the single-digit margin of 48 percent to 39 percent. You'll recall the CBS poll in August, at the height of the Swift Boat frenzy, showing that Bush had grabbed a "gaudy," as the sportswriters say, 23-point lead among veterans (matters were about even before the Swiftie blitz). Well, it's been shaved by well more than half, and Bush is below 50 percent, which means that Kerry could fight the veterans' vote back to a draw.

Don't sit by the television waiting for the cable gabbers to make a big hoo-ha of this, as they did the CBS poll showing Bush's huge lead. You and I know it doesn't work that way. But if anything (assuming, of course, that this poll is accurate), this is an even more remarkable development than the Bush surge in August. "Fortunate Son," while it's gotten plenty of press, didn't get anywhere near the play the Swiftie barrage received; beyond that, it ceded much of the narrative space in the "what-they-did-30-years-ago" story line to the Dan Rather/documents controversy.

It proves that attacks work. There's no point in being self-righteous about them. There is, of course, an important distinction to be made between attacks that have at least some relationship to the factual record and attacks that are outright fabrication and slander. But one can abhor the latter without opposing attack politics in general. Any pursuit of victory involves exploitation of the opposition's weaknesses, and why Democrats chose to strip themselves of this weapon during their convention has always mystified me. Kerry, it seems, has figured out what a silly mistake that was and has delivered a series of speeches recently hitting Bush pretty hard on foreign policy.

Now, beginning with this Thursday's debate, Kerry should strike right at the dark heart of Bush's national-security failures. Where, he should ask, is Osama bin Laden? We sent about 12,000 troops to Afghanistan. We removed the Taliban, but the man who orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks and then delivered to the world a videotape gloating about them slipped away. Then – boom – we sent 130,000 troops to Iraq, which was somehow more important than getting the man who killed 2,700 Americans. bin Laden still circulates.

Can you imagine the furor from the Limbaugh/FOX News corner if a President Gore hadn't captured the 9-11 malefactor by now (and had diverted resources to go after someone else instead? And how about if – remember this one? – anthrax packets had been sent to congressional Republican leaders and Gore's Justice Department hadn't yet nabbed a culprit?)? There should be blind outrage afoot in this country that bin Laden hasn't been captured or killed. And Kerry should stoke it.

I can already hear the nervous Democratic operatives: Ooh, that's too risky. What if we capture bin Laden between now and November 2? The argument is cut out from underneath Kerry. Well, that's inarguable. But guess what? If we capture bin Laden between now and election day, Bush wins anyway, no matter how you slice it and no matter what Kerry did or did not say. So the risk involved in talking directly and aggressively about bin Laden – Kerry began to do so at Temple University last Friday, but the invocations weren't at the center of that speech – is in fact rather minimal. From the Kerry campaign's point of view, the possible bad political outcome (Bush captures bin Laden, wins election) would have happened anyway, while the possible good political outcome (nation finally focuses on why this man is still at large, Bush put on defensive) will come only if Kerry starts asking the question.

"Operation Fortunate Son" showed that answering attacks and attacking back produces results. In the campaign's remaining weeks, Kerry should apply that lesson to the Bush failure that is, on a list that offers hefty competition, clearly the most morally scandalous.

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