The days of Swift Boating are numbered

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 18, 2008

While the Democrats continue to gnaw at each other for the party’s nomination, there are signs, indications even, that some of the recent methods of electoral success in the past are fading as effective tools.

Most notably, “Swift Boating,” may finally be on its way to becoming a historical footnote.

Swift Boating describes the effective use on well funded false charges against the personal character of a candidate. The way the game is played is a false charge is raised by a 529 group, one that is not permitted to be under the control of any candidate. The group makes the false charge and then the candidate who may benefit from the attack upon his opponent reminds voters that he/she does not endorse this view and has absolutely no control over those promoting the attack.

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The candidate further cites the law that prohibits the candidate from attempting to control the representations of the group leading the character attack.

This argument is then extended to its perfect conclusion: No, we cannot tell them to stop, for that would be attempting to control their free speech and would violate the law. So, sorry, can’t comment on their claims at all.

President Bush and Karl Rove fell in love with this strategy. Our president did not have a distinctive military service in the National Guard in Texas during the Vietnam War, and his opponent, John Kerry had military service in Vietnam that earned him several purple hearts. So how do you diminish a war hero contrasting his service with a tour of Texas in uniform? Why, Swift Boaters of course.

And it worked. In a very close election it could well be argued that the Swift Boating of John Kerry cost him the election. But Rove and Bush had experience with the tactic before the Kerry episode — they had Swift Boated John McCain in South Carolina in the 2000 primaries. The charge against McCain at the time was twofold — he may have conducted himself badly in captivity in Vietnam, and he may have an ill-legitimate child. Of course both charges were false, but that is the nature of Swift Boating.

But in 2008 Swift Boating seems to have run out of effectiveness. Charging Barack Obama with the words his minister spoke did not convince the American people that Obama was responsible for the speech of another. Last week we discovered that claiming Obama was an “elitist” because he saw the angst of those who felt their vote no longer counted did not cause voters to turn away from Obama as a presidential candidate.

New polls out this week found Obama’s popularity nationally to be rising, not falling, after these attempted Swift Boat attacks.

John McCain weathered a swift Boat hit earlier this campaign season when the New York Times suggested he may have had an affair with a lobbyist in his 2000 campaign. Lacking any evidence of the charge voters simply ignored it and moved on.

This fall we have a chance to have a presidential campaign about the issues. Let’s hope that is the way the campaign is conducted.

Both John McCain and Obama (should he win the nomination) have avoided Swift Boat tactics.

They should because it is now “old school.”

Jim Crawford is a contributing columnist for The Ironton Tribune.