My educated guess is that one of Senator Kerry's chief campaign strategies will be to use "negative campaigning" as both a sword and a shield. While shamelessly distorting the president's record through truly dirty campaigning, he'll falsely charge the Bush team of negative campaigning to obscure his own problematic record.
In effect, Kerry operatives will be saying to the Bush administration: "You can't engage in negative campaigning, but we will. You can't question our patriotism, and you can't tout your own patriotism, but we'll tout ours and question yours. And we'll deny we're doing it and accuse you of dirty campaigning if you so much as call us on it."
But before addressing the matter of campaign tactics, let's get a few things straight about so-called "negative campaigning" and the proper parameters of political discourse during an election cycle.
It is wrongheaded to believe that political discourse must always be sweet and light, and rosy and cheerful. Political debate should, of course, be civil, but "getting along" should not be elevated above adhering to principle. We've fallen for the notion that controversy is inherently unhealthy, when the precise opposite is closer to the truth. Indeed, the free flow of conflicting ideas is indispensable to maintaining a regime of freedom.
The essence of free speech is the right to unfettered expression on matters of politics and policy, because these subjects determine the scope and conduct of government and thereby safeguard freedom by ensuring the government exists to serve the people and not the other way around. Conversely, suppressing dissent is a pathway to and a hallmark of totalitarianism.
But in recent times, the political Left, which resides in the Democratic Party, has conducted a systematic assault on political speech, from politically correct speech codes on college campuses to campaign finance "reforms," to efforts to re-institute the Fairness Doctrine for radio broadcasting. At the same time the Left has been engaged in an all out effort to eliminate restrictions on expressions that have little to do with preserving freedom, such as obscenity.
With such an underappreciation for the importance of political speech, it is hardly surprising that the Left is also trying to chill speech through intimidation tactics at the campaign level.
So look to Team Kerry to implement a multipronged strategy centered around false charges of negative campaigning by Team Bush, while simultaneously engaging in negative campaigning itself to stifle a wide ranging policy debate. Kerry will continue to:
-- Badger Bush every time he attempts to showcase his prowess as commander in chief, as with these recent spurious charges that President Bush is exploiting 9-11 through political ads designed to underscore his military leadership.
-- Scream bloody murder every time Team Bush properly highlights the senator's very vulnerable record, particularly on defense. Kerry will squeal that his patriotism is being challenged in an effort to squelch inquiry into his indefensible history of cutting vital weapons systems. Yet all the while he'll try to impugn President Bush's patriotism through misinformation about his attendance record with the Air National Guard.
-- Invoke his military heroism in Vietnam ad nauseum while declaring off limits any discussion about his opportunistic verbal assaults on our troops from his Jane Fondaesque bully pulpit beginning immediately upon his return from Southeast Asia.
-- Engage in truly negative campaigning by positively distorting his own record and negatively distorting Bush's record from the issue of jobs, to tax cuts for the rich, to false charges of the administration lying about WMD.
We must understand that dirty campaigning is lying about or distorting your record or your opponent's record. It is not dirty to expose the truth about your policy positions and record or that of your opponent, even when it puts him in a negative light. Such an airing of the record is not only not dirty campaigning, it is essential to inform the electorate. If the candidates' views and records aren't fair game, then there is no point to political campaigns or even to democratic participation.
So if you keep your eyes open, you'll likely see that every time Kerry complains about Bush's negative campaigning, Bush will have struck pay dirt on an unflattering aspect of Kerry's record or policy proposals. Team Bush should be undeterred by such specious protests and treat them as invitations to dig deeper into John Kerry's abysmal record with the goal of enlightening the public about the consequences of electing him as our next president.