Published Sep 8, 2004

So Dick Cheney said that if we elect Kerry we can expect the terrorists to blow something big up. I wonder how he knows?

But seriously, this is a major escalation in the war of words. It’s long been traditional for one candidate to suggest that he or she is more qualified than his or her opponent. This is a different statement: Cheney is saying that he and Bush are qualified, and that Kerry and Edwards are simply not qualified at all. That’s much more aggressive and negative than what we’re used to hearing. But it’s not new; Lyndon Johnson’s daisy ad did it to Barry Goldwater, and Dukakis did it to himself in 1988 by riding around in an M1 Abrams. Is such an extension of the traditional “I’m better than my opponent” assertion a valid one? Does history justify using this extreme tactic?

Certainly Kerry’s history does not provide the justification. He served in Vietnam (whatever you think of his performance there, there’s no suggestion he didn’t go there and spend several months on active duty under fire). He has, overall, voted money for military appropriations. He may be less of a hawk than the administration, but, even if we are to assme from the evidence offered that he is less qualified than Bush, there’s no indication from his past that he’s totally unqualified.

There’s a contrast here with the “daisy” ad. Goldwater was an avowed hawk who clearly professed an eagerness to go toe-to-toe with the Reds, even if it meant shooting it out. For Johnson to suggest that such behavior could lead to war was not unrealistic. But it was a little harsh, and Johnson accepted it as such; the ad only ran once.

So the Bush campaign has a chance here. They can step back from Cheney’s statements and start talking specifics about the issues. They can stop sowing generalized fear and start concentrating on hopeful messages. And then maybe we can stop worrying about what our candidates were doing in 1968-69 and 1972-73. Because, frankly, we’ve got real problems here in 2004.