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The Specter of Swift Boating

The kerfuffle over the weekend caused by columnist Bob Novak's assertion that Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign possesses "scandalous information" on Barack Obama, but has decided not to use it, highlights the sensitivity within the party over alleged dirty tricks and the lingering effect of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads in 2004.

What began with unsourced item by Novak turned into a major rhetorical battle between the two campaigns over strategy and tactics.

Obama started the melee with a statement from campaign manager David Plouffe demanding that Clinton reveal the information they possessed on the Illinois Senator.

Not surprisingly, the Clinton operation insisted no such information existed and accused the Obama campaign of falling for a classic Republican tactic. "A Republican-leaning journalist runs a blind item designed to set Democrats against one another," said Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson. "Experienced Democrats see this for what it is. Others get distracted and thrown off their games."

That statement produced the equivalent of a political howitzer from Plouffe. "Democrats should know that when Barack Obama is their nominee, he will not allow the 'Swift boat' politics of fear and diversion to prevail in this campaign," said Plouffe.

Invoking the phrase "Swift boat" (or some variation of it) has become increasingly common in the campaign as a way to send a signal to Democratic base voters that dirty tricks are afoot.

Earlier this month it was the Clinton campaign -- in the form of former President Bill Clinton -- that floated the specter of Swift-boating following the attacks on his wife during the Philadelphia debate.

"We listened to people make snide comments about whether Vice President Gore was too stiff," Clinton said in the aftermath of the debate. "And when they made dishonest claims about the things that he said that he'd done in his life. When that scandalous Swift boat ad was run against Senator Kerry." Clinton then went on to suggest he sensed something similar was happening to his wife.

The following day the former president sought to clarify his remark. "I thought it made all the Democrats vulnerable to a Swift boat kind of ad in the general election," Clinton said, according to the Associated Press. "When you have complicated issues, you don't want to turn them into two-dimensional cartoons."

The transformation of "Swift boat" into a verb symbolizes the lingering anger and resentment among Democratic base voters over a series of ads run during the 2004 presidential election that called into question Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) military credentials.

[For a full rendering of the Swift boat controversy check out the stories at the bottom of this post.]

The ads were largely credited by many independent observers with sending George W. Bush back to the White House because they effectively raised questions about one of the central pillars of Kerry's campaign -- his military service. Kerry, himself, acknowledged he should have responded sooner and has since engaged in an ongoing battle with the sponsors of the ads.

Over the weekend, Kerry accepted a challenge from Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens -- a major funder of the Swift boat ads. Pickens said that he will pay $1 million to anyone who can disprove a claim in the ads. Kerry aims to collect the money and give it to charity.

[View letters exchanged between Kerry and Pickens.]

It's clear that the Swift boat ads have become a touchstone and rallying cry in Democratic politics. By alleging "Swift boat" tactics, the Obama and Clinton campaigns are seeking to show the base that they won't repeat the mistakes of 2004. (Wags like to say Democrats are always re-running the last campaign.) When attacked, they will attack back. When a charge is made -- no matter the source -- the charge will be rebutted within the same news cycle.

So strong is the fear of another "Swift boat" style attack among Democrats that it has become a necessity for the two frontrunners to show their toughness whenever a charge is leveled. To be elected -- Democrats believe -- their nominee must know what is coming from opponents and their aligned groups even before it hits the airwaves or mailboxes of voters.

Expect charges of Swift-boating to pick up in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. And watch how Obama and Clinton react to the charges, counter-charges and counter-counter charges. Which candidate can prove they're tough enough?

A Swift boat primer:

* Records Counter a Critic of Kerry (August 19, 2004)
* Swift Boat Accounts Incomplete (August 22, 2004)
* After Decades, Renewed War On Old Conflict (August 28, 2004)

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 19, 2007; 1:25 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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