A few weeks later we started to see trial balloons from George McGovern ("laser-guided bombs from 35,000 feet") and Jay Rockefeller. Those both seemed to go nowhere and were shot down fairly quickly. Yesterday, Wesley Clark was on "Face the Nation and he attacked McCain's wartime experience. Clark's comments are pretty far off the reservation (especially coming from a guy who was fired by Clinton for doing such a shitty job in his post), but they do reveal a fundamental Democratic misunderstanding of the SwiftBoat controversy and what it was really about.
[UPDATE: Apparently Clark has a little consistency problem with his views on attacking wartime service. Oops.]
Apparently, the Democratic thinking on this issue stopped at "Republicans attacked our candidate's war record in 2004, therefore we should attack their candidate's war record in 2008." This is an extension of the classic Democratic explanation for their lack of success in Presidential elections for the last thirty years. It wasn't that their policies were not popular, it was that the Republicans played dirty and were "tougher" than the Democrats. It's the kind of self-preserving lie we all tell ourselves. Politics is a contact sport and both sides play rough. Get over it.
In 2004, Kerry made his military service a cornerstone of his rationale for why he should be elected. I give Kerry a lot of credit and respect. He volunteered for duty and went off to war, a deeply unpopular war, at a time when young Americans of his class were turning their back on military service.
The reason that the SwiftBoat attacks came out, however, was related more to Kerry's actions after he got back from Vietnam. He testified that American soldiers were committing all kinds of outrages "reminiscent of Genghis Khan" and, well, that didn't sit right with a lot of folks who had served honorably. So, they went after his record, which they believed was reflective more of a self-promoting blowhard than the war hero he was making himself out to be. And contrary to popular belief that it was all lies, Kerry could not disprove their assertions, which is really why the attacks were so devastating for him.
Kerry had every right to point out his honorable service, but his campaign put so much emphasis on it, believing it would be an effective contrast with Bush, that it was like an invitation for others to tell their side of the story. And their story painted a picture of Kerry as more of a vain blowhard who was mostly interested in self-promotion, a picture Kerry didn't help with his historically impossible "Christmas in Cambodia" stories. Face it, you know in your heart that picture is pretty close to the person Kerry seems to be. I don't begrudge the guy a little inflated story telling after war service, but the people he slandered in the Winter Soldier investigation weren't as forgiving.
McCain's experience doesn't prove that he is prepared to be President, but it does say a lot about his character. The man was imprisoned and tortured for over 5 years, refused preferential treatment and release (offered because he was the son of a well-known military family and because of his rank) and then stayed in the Navy after rehabilitation to serve as the leader of a flight squadron. Say what you will about his politics, the man has backbone and a deep sense of honor.
Which is why these attacks are fated to help McCain more than hurt him. For the skeptical voter in middle America who is thinking about Obama, such attacks on a man who served with such distinction are not going to sway you towards the guy who has been a Senator for two years. I don't know how much longer they are going to try this strategy, but it is hard to believe somebody in the Democratic camp hasn't said, "Hey, this is a pretty stupid road to go down."