Senator John Kerry is a war hero. He has the medals to prove it and the testimony and support of the men who served with him. For a liberal Senator from Massachusetts running for president in 2004, these military bona fides were critical to his image, stature and credibility.
Then along came the television ads from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The ads were devastating. Extremely simple and effectively produced, they were a direct attack on Senator Kerry’s war record, his honesty and fitness to serve. Ironically, the credibility of the ads themselves have been a source of much debate. The general consensus is they were at best misleading and at worse defamatory. Yet they were inarguably effective. According to Wikipedia, when the ads first appeared 24 percent of swing voters believed there was some truth to the charges against Senator Kerry.
The Swift Boat ads were just one of the reasons Senator Kerry narrowly lost the 2004 race against President George W. Bush, but they were no doubt a factor. And the ads became a verb. Swiftboating an opponent is now a part of America’s political lexicon.
Unlike the Swift Boat Veterans who sought to destroy the Kerry campaign, Reverend Jeremiah Wright meant no harm to Senator Barack Obama. Yet his rise to prominence in the campaign may have the same impact. Senator Obama’s standing among Democrats and, most significantly, among independents, took a heavy blow when videos of Reverand Wright’s sermons hit the Internet. For example, Senator John McCain now leads Senator Obama by seven points overall — and even more among independents — since the controversy, according to polls conducted by Rasmussen Reports. And these polls were conducted after Senator Obama’s eloquent speech addressing the issue.
The Pastor Wright controversy will have little impact on passionate partisans. Strong supporters of Senator Obama remain strong supporters. Those who weren’t going to vote for him before are perhaps more passionate in their opposition, but he didn’t have their votes to begin with. The same could be said of Senator Kerry’s supporters — and opponents — in light of the Swift Boat ads. The damage to Senator Kerry, and now to Senator Obama, is among swing voters.
Few thinking Americans seriously believe Senator Obama shares the anger at and condemnation of America expressed by Reverend Wright. In fact, Senator Obama has explicitly repudiated those statements. But his minister’s statements have raised questions about the Senator, questions that go to the core of Senator Obama’s public persona. Can he really bring people together? Does he really represent a break with the divisive politics of the past? Is he a really a candidate that transcends his race and speaks to and for all Americans?
Reverend Wright’s words undermine his parishioner’s greatest strength and it attacks it among the portion of the electorate he needs most — swing voters. Not surprisingly, according to Rasmussen Reports, Senator Obama’s approval rating has dropped below 50 percent for the first time. Reverend Wright has done what Senator Obama’s opponents could not do: they have made Senator Obama “just another politician” in the eyes of many voters.
Can Senator Obama recover from this fall from grace? Probably. In my view he is a different kind of politicians, representative of a new generation of leadership that has the best chance of bringing the country together again.
Besides, something like this was bound to happen eventually. Senator Obama has created tremendous expectations, but he is, after all, only human. At some point his human failings would take center stage. Senator Obama is capable of countering the blistering attacks coming his way, but it won’t be easy. He not only needs to convince voters to trust him again, but more importantly in a purely crass political context, he needs to convince super delegates he is convincing voters to trust him again. Those party leaders are looking for the Democratic nominee who can win in November. If the conventional wisdom settles on a belief that Senator Obama has taken irreparable damage, those super delegates won’t hesitate to turn to Senator Hillary Clinton.
The timing works in Senator Obama’s favor. With a month to go before the Pennsylvania primary Senator Obama has enough time to turn things around, to prove he can deal with the controversy. But if he’s unable to overcome the swiftboating from his own minister, well, it’s probably better for Democrats to know that now than than in the fall.