A lot of political watchers have been wondering whether an "October surprise" might help to save Republicans from an expected disaster in the Midterm elections. Who would have guessed that it would come from Sen. John F. Kerry like a Halloween treat for the GOP and a trick on Kerry's fellow Democrats.
While discussing the value of education during a campaign event at Pasadena City College the day before Halloween, Kerry said, "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."
The line got a few laughs from the supportive collegiate audience, according to reports, and gasps from just about everywhere else. There he goes again, I thought, afflicted by combat-boot-in-mouth disease.
I am certain that Kerry, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, did not mean to take a cold-hearted shot at the intelligence of our troops in Iraq. That's only how he sounded. As a result, he once again revealed his tin ear for how the things he says sound to those who hear them.
We learned that during his 2004 presidential campaign when he famously tried to explain his position on funding the Iraq war with, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." That sound bite, repeated in countless Republican attack ads, helped President Bush's campaign pin the "flip-flopper" label on Kerry, masking Bush's "stay the course" stubbornness that has since made the President's Iraq policy a Republican liability.
As a fellow veteran of Kerry's generation, I received his remarks as a political version of Vietnam-era flashback syndrome. Back in the 1960s, it was common to say, "Study hard or you might go to Vietnam." That's because we had something then that young people don't have to contend with now: a military draft.
Today's military is all-volunteer and a much broader mix by age, education and background than the Vietnam-era military. In fact, America's military has never been better educated. Recent enlistment shortfalls because of the Iraq war have pressured the Pentagon to relax some of its standards, but discussion of that problem, among others, is muffled by the uproar over Kerry's callousness.
Now Democratic candidates across the country who had invited Kerry to campaign with them are probably back-pedaling away faster than embattled Republican candidates have been avoiding President Bush.
Apology is the usual follow-up to political gaffes, but Kerry's initial response was to go on the offensive. His office directed a public statement "in response to White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, assorted right wing nut-jobs, and right wing talk show hosts desperately distorting Kerry's comments."
"If anyone thinks a veteran would criticize the more than 140,000 heroes serving in Iraq and not the president who got us stuck there, they're crazy," the statement quoted Kerry as saying. "This is the classic GOP playbook. I'm sick and tired of these despicable Republican attacks that always seem to come from those who never can be found to serve in war, but love to attack those who did."
Obviously, Kerry, like a general fighting a war the way he should have fought the previous one, has learned to respond quickly to attacks and with overwhelming force. Unfortunately, this Iraq gaffe is the sort of situation in which name-calling only reduces you to the level of those over whom you would like to show some moral superiority.
In a news conference, Kerry confessed to "a botched joke about the president and the president's people, not about the troops." That's wise. More than 100 American troops died in Iraq in October, long after Vice President Cheney prematurely declared the insurgency to be in its last throes. The administration must be held accountable for the state of this war, just as the leaders who got our generation stuck too long in Vietnam must be held accountable for their errors.
As for Kerry's own political future, he's been testing the waters for a comeback campaign in 2008. With his fiery remarks about right-wing "nut jobs," the notoriously cool Kerry seems to be taking a page from Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean's playbook. Dean believes strongly in firing up the Democratic base with aggressive attacks against Republicans. Passion has its value, but with many Democrats swooning over Sen. Barack Obama's recent announcement that he, too, is thinking about running for president, Americans these days may be looking for moderation more than mudslinging. If so, Kerry could find himself fighting yet another new war with tactics that he should have used in the last one.