Slow Boat to Washington
Thoughts on Barack Obama, John Kerry, and their respective Swift-Boating:
When BHO was running for the Democratic nomination for Pres., many nervous supporters of both BHO and HRC were concerned about the inevitable “swift-boating” that would come if BHO were to secure the nomination. This internal debate was echoed in my own life by individuals who were concerned that BHO could not win in America, either because he was black or because he was not experienced with the “Right-Wing Attack Machine.”
Little did any of us know, after much consternation in the HRC camp, and the inevitable conclusion that if you’re running for President, you run for keeps (it ain’t beanbag, as Johnnie Mac use to say), HRC / Mark Penn began doing the swiftboating — quietly and with the help of the media, culminating in the “head-shot,” Obama’s pastor screaming “God Damn America” on national television, conjuring all sorts of connotations of a rejectionist African American community that wanted no part in reconciliation with the representatives and fellow travelers of their former (and sometimes still-current) oppressors.
A similar moment had happened during the summer and fall of the 2004 Presidential election, when a rising tide began to question John Kerry’s war-time service and patriotism.
The swiftboating (by HRC) of Barack Obama failed relatively quickly, while as Kerry’s was largerly seen as contributing to Kerry’s loss. What was the difference? Why didn’t the Republican 527s actually swift-boat Obama?
One reason, that’s immediate clear, is that Obama didn’t pussyfoot around the Reverend Wright affair. Faced with the negative coverage, Obama faced the issue head-on, in his typical eloquent fashion, and banked on the maturity of the segment of the American population that would be needed to elect him President. He gambled that by talking intelligently and openly on race (an issue in which we are too often too scared to even mention), drawing the landscape, placing Wright in his proper historical perspective and showing the divergence in beliefs between the two men, Obama was able to transcend the issue.
Any attempt to bring it back up might be met with a disappointed “there you go again.”
On a deeper level, Kerry was swiftboated because the anecdote reinforced the narrative: Kerry’s past military service was murky and questionable; his promised strategy for the War on Terror was alsos murky and questionable. Swift Boat led directly into “he was for the war before he was against it.”
The attempted swift-boating of Obama didn’t work because the narrative of difference and anti-Americanism, while compelling, was capable of a fierce rebuttal. Obama was running for President; what anti-American would want to run this Fierce Empire? Obama was different, but we are all different, and that isn’t going to change any time soon. Obama had his own narrative to rebut the swiftboat narrative, and Obama knew that his was stronger.
Kerry had a narrative to play as well — but he never did.
If Kerry had ever stood up on national television, dismissed the allegations, and then launched into a direct attack on the merits of the argument — that a “mission accomplished,” “stay the course,” “with us or against us” mentality was absolutely not the correct philosophy for America to follow in prosecuting an irregular and assymetrical war against an amorphous enemy in a somewhat hostile civilian environment, and that Kerry, through judgment, nuance, experience in diplomacy, and a keen understanding about the failures of Vietnam, was a superior commander in these troubled times, the nonsense over the Swift-Boats would have gone away and we would have instead been having a discussion about the prosecution of the Iraq War.
Instead, Kerry conducted his campaign without ever successfully articulating the mistakes that had been made in Vietnam, the mistakes the neocons were making as of then, and the fierce urgency of change. In a vacuum, banality dominated.
Ultimately, Kerry was not the man. He did not have the stamina, will, and maybe desire to win the Presidency.
One other reason swiftboating did not work with Obama, which has less to do with Obama’s strengths as a candidate and more with the relative maturity of the American people: while white society may be structurally rascist (probably) most white people aren’t racist, or at least, don’t want to be. Any racist attack would lose Obama’s opponent the vast meritocratic middle class that enjoys seeing minorities succeed because such success convinces them that their privileges, by being open to all, are in someway deserved.
McCain always knew that he would lose more than he’d gain by unleashing the hounds. McCain went negative, and they rolled out William Ayers — and said Obama’s middle name as often as possible — but it wasn’t endorsed by McCain, and it wasn’t approved of by the American people. The American people were more willing to endorse the smearing of a military veteran than a member of a historically underprivileged minority.