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McAuliffe, Please Shut Up | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

McAuliffe, Please Shut Up

Please shut up, Terry McAuliffe--that is, about George W. Bush and his missing-time in the Texas Air National Guard.

I keep receiving press releases from flacks at the Democratic Party about Bush's Guard service (or lack thereof). For instance, moments before John Kerry delivered a major speech on September 20 that refocused his campaign with a blast against Bush's war in Iraq, the Democratic National Committee press office emailed me and other reporters an invitation to participate in a conference call with McAuliffe on Bush and the Guard. The call was scheduled to occur in the middle of Kerry's speech.

[Correction: After this column was first posted, the DNC contacted me to complain--about its overall thrust and about the depiction of this particular conference call. The DNC says that Kerry's speech was scheduled to start at 10:00 am and the conference call was scheduled for 11:15 am. As it turned out, Kerry began late and was speaking at 11:15. But the DNC did not begin the conference call until after Kerry finished. Still, the main point remains.]

Shouldn't the Democratic Party that day have been reinforcing Kerry's message that Bush has screwed the pooch in Iraq and that Kerry has a plan for dealing with the mess Bush created? (Click here to read about Kerry's proposals.) Instead, McAuliffe and his crew at DNC HQ thought it was best to take yet another swipe at Bush for cutting out on the Guard.

Despite the success of the Swift Vets' assault on Kerry--as fact-free as much of it was--McAuliffe and the party are wrong to obsess over what Bush or did not do three decades ago. I've written frequently about Bush and the Guard, and I encourage journalists and researchers to pursue the story. But Bush's military service should not be a frontline battle for the Democratic Party. By raising the issue incessantly, McAuliffe and the party will not persuade voters. Voters probably have already reached their conclusions about that 32-year-old episode and its significance. Absent new information--material not based on forgeries--McAuliffe should not be beating this horse further.

The matter is a sideshow. Whatever Bush did way back then, his record in the White House is more critical--particularly what he has done since September 11, 2001. Kerry is right to confront Bush directly on the war in Iraq and the misnamed war on terrorism. He has little choice. Bush has deftly and effectively defined the election not only as a referendum on the war in Iraq but a contest to determine which candidate is more decisive and better able to lead a strong and assertive attack on America's enemy. And as president and as head of a party machine that is maniacally disciplined when it comes to message development and promotion, Bush has the power to set the terms of the debate. (Kerry cannot snap his fingers and declare that this election is really about health care and outsourcing.) So the final stretch of this election will focus on who can best be the protector-in-chief. What Kerry did in Vietnam, what Bush did not in Vietnam (and Alabama) is largely irrelevant in this discussion.

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When you're done reading this article,visit David Corn's WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent entries on Chris Matthews going soft on the Swift Vets, the lack of evidence for the charge Kerry is a flip-flopper, Bush's latest flubs and fibs, and my recent adventure at Notre Dame.

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Yet as Kerry tries to gain ground in this debate--today he gave a strong speech outlining his specific ideas for countering the terrorist threat posed by Islamic extremists--McAuliffe and his DNC colleagues keep yapping about Bush's Guard record. On Wednesday, they put out a press release asking why Bush aides have offered conflicting explanations for Bush's failure to take a flight physical in 1972. And after the New York Post reported that the "hot rumor in New York political circles has Roger Stone, the longtime GOP activist, as the source for Dan Rather's dubious Texas Air National Guard 'memos,'" McAuliffe issued a statement, in which he asked, "Will [GOP chairman] Ed Gillespie or the White House admit today what they know about Mr. Stone's relationship with these forged documents? Will they unequivocally rule out Mr. Stone's involvement? Or for that matter, others with a known history of dirty tricks, such as Karl Rove or Ralph Reed?" C'mon, who believes gossip reported in the Post?

When CBS News announced it no longer considered the documents authenticated, McAuliffe put out an official statement urging the public and the press to "focus on the facts," not the forgeries. "The American people," he said, "already know that strings were pulled to get President Bush into the Guard; and while in the Guard he missed months of service and was grounded. We know that George Bush was a fortunate son, a child of privilege, who refuses to admit that he used his connections to avoid fulfilling his requirements. But what we still don't know is why Bush didn't fulfill his duty to his country or why he has continued to lie to the American people about it."

There is nothing wrong or inaccurate in what McAuliffe has been saying about Bush and the Guard. But his job should be amplifying Kerry's message. The GOP does that for Bush perfectly. Each day I receive numerous emails from the Republican Party that are on-message in a zombie-like fashion. Then I turn on the cable news shows and see White House officials, Bush campaign aides, and other Republicans mouthing the line du jour--all in complete lockstep. They generally have stayed away from explicitly seconding the Swift Vets' attacks, unless asked.

Kerry has decided that his best chance is to go after Bush directly on the war--this war, not that war. In his speech today, Kerry did not even bother to refer to his own Vietnam service. Instead, he highlighted his policy ideas, as well as his experience in the Senate concerning terrorism and other related national security matters. (Mark Mehlman of the Bush campaign offered the predictable response to Kerry's address. He called it one more flip-flop from a fellow who said the United States "would be safer if Saddam Hussein was still in power.") So McAuliffe ought to get on board and let other partisans bash Bush for being MIA as a Guardsman. (What's a 527 for?) Kerry has adopted a tough course, though it may be the only path available. He must convince voters that Bush, a wartime president, ought to be fired because he botched the fight against al Qaeda by recklessly launching an elective war for which he did not plan adequately. And Kerry must also persuade voters that, despite the accusations of flip-flopping, he will be a stronger leader than the swaggering, you-know-where-I-stand Bush.

There's not much time for Kerry to do all this. And the debates--which start on September 30--will be his best opportunity to put his case before a large group of potential voters. (National security will be the focus of the first debate.) Kerry could use all the back-up he can get. McAuliffe and the party should be boosting Kerry's message--by criticizing Bush for the war, not events from the early 1970s. The Guard issue certainly plays well among Bush-bashers and, no doubt, it is tempting for McAuliffe and his fellow Bush-whackers at the DNC to engage in such easy attacks. But they ought to resist. They need to concentrate their fire on the main target: what Bush has done in Iraq. Both Kerry and Bush agree that is what this election is about. McAuliffe should salute and follow Kerry's charge up a hill that will be rather tough to take.

UPDATE: As noted above, after this article was first posted, several people at the DNC complained. They raised some legitimate points, so I thought I'd share them.

1. They note that the Democratic Party, as depicted in this column, might be seen by some readers as a rogue operation. In fact, the DNCers explain, the party's actions and strategies are designed in consultation with the Kerry campaign. That is, if Terry McAuliffe is pushing the Bush-and-the-Guard angle, that means the Kerry campaign is okay with it.

2. The DNC's continuing criticism of Bush's military record, the DNC folks maintain, is a crucial part of the anti-Bush effort. With Kerry under (illegitimate) fire from the Swift Vets regarding his Vietnam past, the DNC has to fight back in similar fashion. And in response my suggestion that such work could be handled by 527 groups independent of the party, the DNCers say that actually there are not pro-Democratic outfits with the profile of the Swift Vets that could undertake this mission effectively. They also point out that the Bush-and-the-Guard wave was cresting this past week and that the party had little choice but to ride it as far as it could. (Dan Rather's screw-up probably has prevented the Dems from pushing this line of attack any further.)

3. The assault on Bush's past as an MIA Guardsman, they say, is part of the overall strategy devised by the Kerry campaign and the DNC to challenge Bush's credibility and integrity. The Guard story, as the DNC officials see it, is not merely about Bush's choices and actions 32 years ago; it is about the disingenuous and misleading responses he and his aides have relied upon as they have recently faced questions and criticism.

4. This tactic is working--or so the DNC gang says. My hunch is that bashing Bush on the Guard front is no longer politically effective. But one DNC official sent me the results of a recent Fox News poll showing that Bush's mega-lead among veterans has fallen precipitously. The DNCers believe this is proof its Guard-related attack on Bush has drawn blood. Here is how that poll was reported on Fox:

Fox News/Opnion Dynamics poll which show that George Bush's lead among veterans is actually kind of slipped dramatically from the beginning of September. One point there he had a 23-point lead. Now he's got a 10-point lead. So it appears despite all this memogate flap about a forged letter that the attack on Bush's National Guard record is having an effect.

Among likely voters who are veterans, Bush was leading Kerry 48 to 39 percent. That's not such a hefty margin for a swaggering and decisive wartime president running against a wimpy, French-speaking, finger-in-the-wind, flip-flopping uncertain pol with no plan for defending this county and who is al Qaeda's favorite candidate.

One DNC official sent me an Air Force Times article on Bush and the Guard to show that DNC efforts to keep the story in play are worthwhile. Here are some key paragraphs from that piece:

From most accounts, Bush appears to have received preferential treatment to get into the Air National Guard and avoid the draft after he graduated from Yale University in 1968. He was initially regarded as a good pilot, but his performance faded over his final two years in the Guard and he was suspended from flight status. He did not fly for the remaining 18 months he served in the Guard, though he was obligated to do so.

And for significant chunks of time, Bush did not report for duty at all. His superiors took no action, and he was honorably discharged in 1973, six months before he should have been.

In a 2002 interview with USA Today, Dean Roome, a former fighter pilot who lived with Bush in the early 1970s, said Bush was a model officer during the first part of his career. But overall, he said, Bush's Air Guard career was erratic the first three years solid, the last two troubled.

"You wonder if you know who George Bush is," Roome said. "I think he digressed after a while. In the first half, he was gung-ho. Where George failed was to fulfill his obligation as a pilot. It was an irrational time in his life."

The article was headlined "Bush's Air Guard Stint Started Well, Then Faded Into Mystery," and it cannot hurt Kerry any time a military publication presents a serious analysis of Bush's stint in the Guard that questions Bush's account.

Does all of this mean that my criticism of the DNC's obsession with Bush's Vietnam record is misplaced? I still think that Kerry's primary mission--countering Bush's claim that he is strong, decisive and keeping America safe today--is such a tough task that the DNC should aim all the firepower it has at this target. The Guard story may have been in the news earlier this week, but Kerry was trying to break through with his speech on Iraq. The armchair political strategist in me says that the DNC should have been loudly singing back-up on that tune. But I'm no professional political consultant (I only play one on television), and I don't get paid for the advice I freely dispense, so according to market principles it ain't worth much. I do hope that the DNCers are right, and I am wrong. But we'll have to wait for the exit polls to sort that out.

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DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is NOW AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research....[I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer....Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there.

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