- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

George W. Bush is getting a little bump in the public-opinion polls. He may win, but it will be in spite of himself.

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth finally put a little pizzazz in the president’s re-election campaign, breaking Democratic momentum at just the right moment, and the president thanks them by threatening to sue if they don’t stop it.

Republicans don’t do politics. It’s a game they don’t really understand. The soul of the party, such as it is, resides in the corporate boardroom. Republican strategists think like CEOs: When the going gets tough, curtsy and apologize. The veterans, who are not necessarily Republicans, are undeterred by sniper fire. They posted another commercial late yesterday.

John McCain, the Mother Teresa of American politics, continues his own campaign to get George W. to “condemn” the Swiftees’ ad. The president dutifully praises the Kerry derring-do in Vietnam, but that’s not enough. He won’t say the magic words that Monsieur Kerry, John McCain and the press establishment demand. George W. and his wise men may be waiting for the weekend to curtsy and apologize on the eve of the convention in New York. That will get maximum attention — and the derisive contempt of everyone now demanding that he cry “uncle.”

The president sent his press agent out yesterday to throw another rock at what the Associated Press calls “shadowy” outside groups, though it’s not at all clear how any group could be less shadowy than the Swiftees, who are exercising their First Amendment right of free speech on the front pages and on national television broadcasts.

“We want to pursue court action,” Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, told reporters in New Mexico. “The president said if the court action doesn’t work he would be willing to pursue legislative action with Sen. McCain on that.”

George W. can’t really have any argument with the Swiftees. He can feel the boost, and the Bushes — father, mother and sons — are famous for their gratitude and loyalty to their friends. But George W. and his wise men are members of that large tribe of Republicans who think they can pave a pathway to the hearts of voters with apology, penance, pardon and self-reproach. It never works, not even with the League of Compassionate Lady Voters, but some Republicans never tire of trying.

If he pursues John McCain hard enough and far enough, the president thinks he will be forgiven for having defeated the senator four years ago by McCain voters if not by the senator himself. The senator obviously has no intention of forgiving, and he gives every evidence of enjoying immensely the president’s courtship. We haven’t seen such passionate public wooing since Jimmy Carter chased Teddy Kennedy around and around the platform at the Democratic National Convention in 1980, trying to trap him into a hug for the cameras.

Mr. McCain is desperate to preserve the hash his McCain-Feingold “reforms” have made of presidential campaigns. Democrats and Republicans alike have found the loophole in the section of the law that makes 527 groups of both liberal and conservative persuasion possible, enabling them to speak freely about things the candidates can’t or won’t say about themselves and each other.

“I’ve said before I would like for the president to specifically condemn that ad,” John McCain says of the TV commercial in which other veterans speak their piece about John Kerry’s Vietnam War heroics. “I want to emphasize that we’re not saying that 527s should be abolished. We’re just saying they should live under the same campaign-finance restrictions because they are engaged in partisan activity.” (We must not despoil our politics with partisan activity.)

Mr. McCain, like all pols, dreams of controlling the national conversation. Politics would be so much more comfortable for the pols if campaigns were run like Navy ships and corporate boardrooms: Just shut up and salute. But Americans don’t like to be told to shut up. We only salute who and when we want to.

Laws, as Congress and the president are learning, are written by lawyers, and what one lawyer can do another lawyer can undo. This is the home truth the president should have embraced, with a ringing affirmation of the right of everyone, even Swift Boat veterans, to speak up. “I didn’t whine when John Kerry and his friends promoted Michael Moore’s movie claptrappery,” he could have said to Monsieur Kerry, “and I didn’t whine when a Democratic 527 commercial compared me to Hitler. Be a man, John, be a man.”

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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