NEW YORK -- Look at it this way: There are surely 16-year-olds, smart kids of the present and community leaders-to-be, who will read this and other accounts of the great Watershed Election of 2004 and who know, vaguely or even with some precise detail, that there are resemblances between this year's presidential election and the one that occurred in 1988, the year of their birth.
They will know the saga of Michael Dukakis, a Democratic son of Massachusetts, who tried to run for president on competence and ended up being tagged with the opposite of that, who was opposed by a Republican named George Bush, a man so bumbling that a national magazine slugged one of its cover stories about him with the line "Fighting the Wimp Factor" but who somehow became endowed with credible heroic swagger while the Democrat experienced the erosion of his own. These precocious readers will know that the Democratic candidate of their birth year got slammed, like the party standard-bearer of 2004, by an outlaw smear campaign -- the infamous Willie Horton ads in Dukakis' case, the swift-boat calumnies in John Kerry's -- and they will mutter, like so many of their elders, imprecations against these malefactors of great wealth who would do something so dire against a man so pure and deserving.
And, if Democratic partisans they are, they may read these resemblances to the past as auguries of the future, signs of a defeat to come, and curse the fates. But the more discerning among them may say, "Hey, they did it to themselves!"
And these will be your valedictorians.
For, like Michael Dukakis, who in a debate with the elder George Bush, answered too placidly a question about the hypothetical rape of his own wife, Senator Kerry has let some questions go begging too.
Could he really have been so foolish, as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani claimed in his Monday-night speech to the Republican convention crowd at Madison Square Garden, as to have called the Israeli wall now under construction on the West Bank a "barrier to peace" while later approving it as a legitimate act of self-defense? If so, then he thereby stepped unsuspectingly into the pair of flip-flops which the opposition had obligingly set aside for him. (A pair of bona fide "Kerry flip-flops," bearing the candidate's face on the heel, was included in the goodie kit handed out to GOP delegates arriving here on the weekend.)
In this case, Kerry's apparent waffling, no doubt designed to cover both bases, may have ended by covering none. It did not prevent actor Ron Silver, reportedly motivated in large part by his concern for Israel, from serving as leadoff man Monday night in the series of high-profile extollers of Bush the wise warrior and statesman. The attack of September 11th, said Silver, was an infamy "we cannot forget, we cannot forgive, we cannot excuse," and like the president, he embraced the concept of a greater War on Terror expanded to include the war in Iraq. Said Silver, to thunderous applause: "The president is doing exactly the right thing!"
And Silver, the same Ron Silver who was last seen carrying a torch for Democrat Bill Bradley in the early primaries of 2000, went on to intone the name of his endorsee, "George W. Bush," to an even greater ovation.
He was followed by Arizona senator John McCain, who had so recently been the subject of Kerry's public courtship as a potential running mate and bridge to the opposition. He who seemed more than willing of a sudden to put aside his differences with Bush -- including whatever resentment remained from a slander campaign directed against McCain by Bush supporters during the 2000 South Carolina primary. The president's goals in Iraq were "necessary, achievable, and noble," said McCain, who scored rhetorical points against the attending Michael Moore, a "disingenuous filmmaker" whose hugely successful Fahrenheit 9/11, a cinematic philippic against the war, is now beginning to seem as dated as the celebrity of erstwhile national-security whistleblower Richard Clarke.
Much of the reason for that change in the political weather -- a minute but growing one that polls were beginning to chart even before the convention started -- could be attributed not to the meretricious contentions of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth about Kerry's war record but to the Democratic nominee's own caution two weeks ago, when he fell into a trap set by Bush and defended his 2002 vote for the Iraq war. He would do it again, Kerry had said, even if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction (WMD, in the now clich«½d acronym) or any evidence of collaboration between Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.
With that, Democrats all over America surely bit their lips to keep from uttering Dick Cheney's favorite action verb/expletive. Some half a million people snaked through the streets of Manhattan on Sunday to indicate their dissatisfaction with the Bush administration, and an enormous percentage of them were motivated by their hatred of the Bush policy in Iraq. As was true of Vietnam more than a generation ago, a military conflict was both a red flag in itself and a convenient symbol of other discontents.
And now Kerry had basically eighty-sixed the whole controversy to -- what? Avoid controversy? If so, he had failed. And his decision to drape last month's Democratic convention in Boston in Vietnam-shaded mufti while surrounding himself with ex-Navy crewmates as a trope for his candidacy had backfired. For most of the time since, the decorated veteran had been on the defensive about his military service, and, at best, it had been neutralized as an issue that could work for him.
So much had it been done away with that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani in his overlong but effective oration now felt entitled, in an otherwise scornful series of references to Kerry, to damn the Democrat with faint praise. "I respect him for his service to the nation," Giuliani said, and Kerry actually got a round of the kind of polite applause that runners-up -- in a word, losers -- get at post-election affairs conducted by the winners. As much as anything critical that was said of him -- and there was much of that -- the condescension toward Kerry was devastating.
It may also be premature, of course. Kerry is no flash in the pan, and he didn't get where he is today without experiencing some cliffhanging moments, times when he was left for dead politically. He survived a couple of close elections, closing fast to win them, and surely no one needs to be reminded of what happened in Iowa back in January when the senator actually managed to come from back in the pack to victory with a few weeks' worth of intensified campaigning.
He is, after all, a genuine military hero, not a funny little man posing atop a tank or a reservist mugging in a flight suit aboard a warship. Those who doubt his valor may end up being disabused of their complacency. And, for all the glow of their opening night in New York, which borrowed something (as was surely the plan) from the still unspeakable grief of 9/11 and focused on the achievements of the nation's military, the Republicans might still have a chore on their hands cleaning up the president's latest verbal upchucks -- his description of the outcome in Iraq as a "catastrophic victory" and his declaration to an interviewer that the United States could not "win" the War on Terror.
It would surely be an irony in this nip-and-tuck presidential race if the incumbent should now have to do what his challenger did: spend a month or so explaining himself to voters who would seem to have more than a normal share of skepticism toward both contenders.