Didn’t John Kerry ever read about rope-a-dope? Karl Rove must be kicking his heels with merriment at the way the horse-faced son of Boston is tangling himself up in the Swift Boat comedy. A couple of weeks more and I reckon Kerry will start crying on TV at the besmirchments of his war record, and it will all be over.

Are there any skins thinner than those belonging to Democratic Loyalists for Kerry? The other night Jeffrey St. Clair, who co-edits the political website and newsletter CounterPunch with yours truly, found himself to a gathering of antiwar activists in downtown Portland, Oregon, touting our new book, Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils. There were about a hundred souls assembled, and Jeffrey’s seasoned eye assayed the political temper of the throng. Sure enough, at least a score had that fixity of gaze and tensed naso-labial musculature that betrayed the presence of Zombies for Kerry.

Jeffrey plunged into his talk, an evenhanded assault on both Bush and Kerry. First he whaled away at Bush, tracing the shameful decline of this war resister from the moral Everest of his Quaker-like refusal to spill Vietnamese blood (or his own) to his latter-day militarist posturing and use of the National Guard as a de facto draft, with the draftees press-ganged into indentured servitude by stop-loss orders, now under court challenge.

Then Jeffrey turned his spotlight on Kerry’s record in Vietnam and began to review the unpleasing record of unmerited Purple Hearts and Silver Star, plus those actions of Lieutenant Kerry that could arguably be classified as war crimes. At this point a lady of middle years, the leader of the Kerry loyalists, rose in indignation and, after a whispered and vehement colloquy with the organizer of the event, led her troops, perhaps a dozen in number, haughtily from the hall.

I’ve no way of knowing, but it’s quite possible that among those protesters were several, maybe many, who were passionately opposed to the war in Vietnam, and themselves denounced it as fifteen years of war crimes against the Vietnamese people. Yet here they were, so deeply committed to voting for Kerry that they could not even bear to hear a discussion of his conduct in Vietnam, let alone sit still for a reasoned discussion of Kerry’s pledges to keep the troops in Iraq.

The calculation in the Kerry camp is obviously that the liberal-progressive part of their base will put up with anything, and they seem to be correct in making that assumption. Last weekend one of Kerry’s aides took the opportunity, in a debate on CNN, to emphasize that Kerry supported “96 percent” of the Patriot Act and indeed wrote some of the language of the act.

Kerry announces that even if he’d known the allegations of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs were spurious, he’d have voted to authorize war on Iraq. There’s scarcely a quiver in the ABB loyalists. Kerry was backing Bush’s attack on Iraq at the same moment that Republican Representative Doug Bereuter of Nebraska (No. 2 on the House Intelligence Committee) said the attack was unjustified, while Republican Representative Jim Leach of Iowa, twenty-eight years on the Hill, was calling for the United States to get out by the end of the year.

Such criticism on the Democratic side was virtually inaudible. I’ve heard only Robert Byrd and Russell Feingold publicly criticizing Kerry’s stance on the war in recent days. After argument with an ABB-er the other day, I asked him about his long-term political perspective. Here he was beating the drum for a man who stands for everything he opposes: war in Iraq, war in Colombia, war on drugs, war on the deficit, war on teen morals. Oh, he said, the day after we elect John Kerry we’ll go to war on him. Yeah, right! Back in the early and middle 1990s the liberals and progressives were exactly as indulgent to Clinton as they are to Kerry now. After almost four years of Clinton, Washington’s liberal advocacy groups, foundations and public-interest networks resembled the Vichy French after six years of Nazi occupation.

Pressed for explanations for their pusillanimity, the liberal advocates explained that the Republican hordes who swept into Congress in 1994 were so barbaric, as was the prospect of a Dole presidency, that they had no choice but to circle the wagons round Bill Clinton.

So the Democratic Party, from DLC governors to liberal public-interest groups, mustered around their leader and marched into the late 1990s arm in arm along the path sign-posted toward the greatest orgy of corporate theft in the history of the planet, deregulation of banking and food safety, NAFTA and the WTO, rates of logging six times those achieved in the subsequent Bush years, oil drilling in the Arctic, a war on Yugoslavia, Plan Colombia, a vast expansion of the death penalty, reaffirmation of racist drug laws, the foundations of the Patriot Act.

The serious rebellion took place in the streets, in Seattle at the end of 1999, and the insurgents most certainly didn’t come from the progressive/liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

There’s a strong case for arguing that the importance of these presidential contests is disastrously exaggerated. As always, a monocular obsession with getting behind the Democratic nominee means quitting vital battlefields. In the 1996 and 2000 campaigns the AFL-CIO pulled many of its field organizers off its issue campaigns to work for Clinton and Gore, the very architects of the agreements that these labor organizers had spent the previous three years fighting.

Only weeks ago Andy Stern, head of the SEIU, blurted out to Dave Broder of the Washington Post that a Kerry victory might well demobilize labor. He had a strong point, even though he swiftly recanted. Now we see Stern sending his SEIU organizers out across Oregon in an effort to keep Nader off the ballot, who’s done a lot more for SEIU members in substantive terms than Kerry ever has or will.

Rope-a-dope can mean tiring out your opponent. It can also mean getting your brains beaten in, and shuffling along as a Zombie.