Let me take a look, as a former Democratic campaign adviser, at some of the problems facing the party’s candidates in this election and how to resolve them.
The claim was raised at the Democratic National Convention that Republicans make illegitimate attacks on their candidates, attacks that imply they are far out of the American mainstream. Two examples they cite are 1988’s “Willie Horton” ads against Michael Dukakis and 2004’s Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads against John Kerry.
But both attacks were well within the bounds of fair political comment. Mr. Dukakis supported for 11 years a policy of granting weekend furloughs for prisoners sentenced to life without parole. Willie Horton, one of those furloughed, fled and committed another violent crime.
There’s a reasonable argument for granting weekend furloughs to prisoners scheduled to be released in six months or so. Voters may not agree, but few will consider the policy outrageous. But there is no rational argument for letting loose a prisoner who is supposed to stay behind bars the rest of his life. Democrats now criticize Mr. Dukakis for not fighting back. But what argument could he have made?
As for Mr. Kerry, I listened respectfully to the majority of his boatmates who said he acted heroically and to the majority of the larger squadron who said he did not. They were talking about events that happened long ago, in sudden violence, and I found myself unable to say those on either side were lying.
But I also saw Mr. Kerry’s campaign abandon his claim - that he said on the Senate floor in 1986 was “seared, seared” in his memory - that he was in Cambodia at Christmastime 1968. And I never heard him repudiate his 1971 Senate Foreign Relations testimony - featured in the ads - that our soldiers committed “crimes …. on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.”
I used to be a Democratic campaign consultant. In that capacity, I would have advised the Dukakis campaign to admit early on that the furlough policy was a mistake. I would have advised the Kerry campaign to go before a veterans’ group early on and apologize for the Foreign Relations testimony. Voters understand that candidates sometimes make mistakes and that young men say outrageous things they come to regret in time.
That brings us to Barack Obama. He has three major vulnerabilities here as I see it. One is his 20-year relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Polls suggest he has sustained some damage on this, and it’s not clear whether video clips of Mr. Wright saying “God damn America” will inflict more in the fall despite the candidate’s repudiation of those comments.
Another problem is Mr. Obama’s relationship with the unrepentant Weather Underground terrorist bomber William Ayers. In an April debate, Mr. Obama portrayed Mr. Ayers as a casual acquaintance. But Mr. Ayers was co-founder of the $49 million Chicago Annenberg Challenge education program and Mr. Obama its chairman of the board. The Obama campaign has sued to take off the air ads highlighting the Ayers relationship and tried to intimidate a radio station for hosting a conservative who is examining the Annenberg documents in the Richard J. Daley Library.
Finally, there is Mr. Obama’s 2003 vote against a bill, “virtually identical” as the Obama campaign admits, to one that passed the U.S. Senate 98-0, banning the killing of fetuses who have survived abortions.
Liberals like Mr. Obama tend to go over the line between positions and associations that most voters find reasonable (though they may not agree) and those they find outrageous. They assume, usually correctly, that mainstream media will be reluctant to report on the latter, as has been the case in all those mentioned above. Conservatives take more care to separate themselves from the outrageous because they know mainstream media will pounce on them if they don’t.
On Mr. Ayers, the Obama campaign has tried to suppress discussion. But it will likely fail. The emergence of new media and the First Amendment mean it is like stopping the Mississippi River from flowing to the sea. If I were advising Mr. Obama, I would tell him to confess error, as he arguably has on Wright, on both Mr. Ayers and the Born Alive Protection Act, lest they cause his campaign as much damage as the furlough ads caused Michael Dukakis and the Swift Boat ads caused John Kerry.
Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.