Swift-Boating Here to Stay
Michael Kinsley hopes that Swift-Boating, a combination of smear and truth that “exploits its own complexity and the reluctance of the media to adjudicate factual disputes” and thus sticks, will not reappear this election season.
The raw material for swift-boating this year is already apparent. There is Obama’s loony pastor, his friendship with a former radical, his dealings with a convicted financial sleaze. McCain’s friendship with a woman lobbyist is an issue the New York Times fumbled, but it could resurface. McCain was one of the Keating Five, tied to a financial and influence scandal from the early ’90s that could be brought down from the attic. And there is his alleged bad temper, a potentially legitimate issue that could be blended with his age in unsavory ways.
To swift-boat or not to swift-boat? What’ll it be? Both candidates have publicly sworn off the practice, and McCain was admirably loud in denouncing the Swift Boat campaign in 2004. Of course, that was when he was still a maverick. I’ve been shocked by how many Democrats, in an informal poll, take the position that whatever it takes to win is justified. They say, first, that the Republicans will do anything to win, and it would be naive to attempt a higher standard. Second, they say, the stakes in this election are so high that an excess of scruples in trying to win it would be morality misplaced. Many Republicans agree at least with this second point. The belief of some Democrats that only scruples are stopping them from swift-boating as effectively as Republicans is almost touching.
If these junior Machiavellis are right, there is no hope for a civilized campaign.
They are and there isn’t. There’s a decent chance both of the campaigns will forswear the practice but zero chance that their surrogates won’t engage in whatever tactics they think give their team the best chance at winning.
Ironically, the normally intellectually honest Kinsley both poisons the well and begs the question in his essay,
dismissing arguments that the smears about John Kerry in 2004 and about Michael Dukakis in 1988 were part and parcel of the Republican campaign strategy as unworthy of discussion. Indeed, this is precisely as underhanded as Swift-Boating itself, forcing the other side to prove and negative and relying on the complexity of a national campaign to obscure the truth.
There’s also a Reverse Swift-Boat at work here as well. While I immediately condemned the early, scurrilous charges of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against Kerry, they did bring to the table, as Kinsley concedes, many arguments against Kerry which were true and which damaged him. The fact that the group which did this was itself contemptible does not mean that the charges themselves were illegitimate. That charges that Kerry was a war criminal and a coward who connived to get phony medals were outrageous; pointing out that he repeatedly lied about other veterans and his own service was fair game.
Similarly, giving credence to the “Obama is a Muslim” argument and claiming that the Obamas are secret racists who hate America is beyond the pale. It’s perfectly fair, however, to call into question Obama’s judgment for associating with Jeremiah Wright and other questionable characters for so long. And, while most Keating Five attacks on McCain at this stage are likely to be specious, his involvement in the scandal is not an unreasonable topic for exploitation, especially against a candidate running on cleaning up government corruption.