- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The “chickenhawk” epithet got stale in 2003, perhaps earlier. The late Michael Kelly identified it as the “general trump-it-all insult of the antiwar crowd” back in October 2002. Al Franken’s 1996 “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot” included a chapter called “Operation Chickenhawk.” A Google search reveals 739,000 uses of the term on the Internet; a LexisNexis search lists 701 uses in U.S. news reports since 2001. A Web retailer is offering a set of 54 chickenhawk playing cards for $14.95.

One would think that whatever political potency the charge once had, it has run its course. And yet, the chickenhawk seems to be a major component, if not the centerpiece, of the Democratic challenger’s campaign in the Virginia Senate race.

One can wonder whether Vietnam veteran and former Navy Secretary James Webb really wants his critique of Republican Sen. George Allen to begin with boot camp and end with an honorable discharge. But one of his strategists, Chief Spokesman Steve Jarding, has contrasted the military service of his candidate with Mr. Allen’s lack of military service early and often.

Mr. Allen’s campaign manager is Dick Wadhams, a sharp-elbowed strategist labeled “Karl Rove’s heir apparent.” Mr. Wadhams declared in late June that by opposing an amendment banning flag-burning, Mr. Webb “puts himself firmly on the side of John Kerry, Ted Kennedy and Charles Schumer.” Mr. Jarding labeled the Wadhams statement “weak-kneed attacks by cowards.”

He continued: “While Jim Webb and others of George Felix Allen Jr.’s generation were fighting for our freedoms and for our symbols of freedom in Vietnam, George Felix Allen Jr. was playing cowboy at a dude ranch in Nevada. People who live in glass dude ranches should not question the patriotism of real soldiers who fought and bled for this country on a real battlefield.”

Mr. Wadhams and Mr. Jarding had a back-and-forth via press release, with the GOP campaign called “sad and pathetic but predictable,” while Mr. Jarding called Mr. Wadhams “a wounded dog.” It took less than a week for the pair to go another round. After Mr. Wadhams criticized Mr. Webb’s response to the president’s weekly radio address, Mr. Jarding played the chickenhawk card again: “Unlike George Allen, [Mr. Webb] has always led from the front — he even went to Afghanistan two years ago as an embedded journalist, going on combat operations and sleeping on the ground with the Marines over there. He knows that issues such as the Iraq war can’t be solved by wise-guy sound bites of the sort Mr. Wadhams specializes in.”

The “chickenhawk” argument appears to be a favorite of Mr. Jarding’s — a Harvard lecturer best known for engineering Mark Warner’s victory in the 2001 Virginia governor’s race, as well as his work with Sens. Bob Kerrey and John Edwards.

When Mr. Jarding’s book “Foxes in the Henhouse” debuted this spring, the book’s tone was brimming with rage, with the president’s title virtually changed to “Draft Dodger Bush.” The book, co-authored with fellow Webb adviser Dave “Mudcat” Sanders, focused relentlessly on how many Democratic lawmakers served in Vietnam and how many Republicans didn’t.

The usefulness of invoking past military service is debatable. If experience in combat were truly a trump card, Sen. John Kerry would be president today.

A July 2004 poll by USA Today found that 52 percent agreed that military service would help Mr. Kerry be an effective president, but only about one in four said his service made them more likely to vote for him. In February of that year, the Pew Center found that only 21 percent believed it is very important to learn about a candidate’s military service. Interestingly, an October 2004 Army Times poll of 2,754 active-duty members and 1,411 members of the National Guard or Reserve found that 47 percent said they attach some importance to the military backgrounds of the candidates. But when asked specific questions about Mr. Bush’s Air National Guard service and Mr. Kerry’s Navy service in Vietnam, most said those records would have little impact on their vote.

So why is Mr. Jarding adopting this “you’re a coward” tone now? As Greg Pollowitz of National Review Online noted, Mr. Webb is a favorite among the Democratic netroots — the furiously liberal types who hang out at the Daily Kos blog. He attracted the fan club for his staunch antiwar stance and his military background. The netroots demand a candidate who will attack relentlessly, and denounce their Republican opponent in the most vehement terms. The Jarding statements are catnip for these potential donors.

Mr. Webb has about $220,000 on hand with around $100,000 in debts, according to his most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission, while Mr. Allen has about $7.5 million.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether regular Virginia voters find this rhetoric as appealing as the netroots. Perhaps the only cliche more tired than the chickenhawk accusation is the other recurring phrase in Mr. Webb’s campaign statements,: “you’re attacking my patriotism.”

Jim Geraghty writes the TKS blog on National Review Online.

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