Well, Sen. John Kerry certainly did his best to offer an October surprise for Republicans at the last minute.
On Monday, Kerry was in California, stumping for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides. At an event at Pasadena City College intended to highlight Democratic education policies, Kerry told students, "You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well." But, he added, "If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."
The Internet lit up like a pinball machine. Sen. John McCain called on Kerry to apologize. Shortly thereafter the grand whirligig of the GOP message machine started churning, with denunciatory press releases from the usual suspects. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow asked the press to ask Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jim Webb of Virginia - a veteran and the father of a soldier in Iraq - if he agreed with Kerry's comments.
In response, Kerry issued a splenetic statement: "I'm not going to be lectured by a stuffed-suit White House mouthpiece standing behind a podium. ... It disgusts me that these Republican hacks, who have never worn the uniform of our country, lie and distort so blatantly and carelessly about those who have. ... Bottom line, these Republicans want to debate straw men because they're afraid to debate real men."
This raises an interesting question: Can a typed diatribe still be spittle-flecked?
Later, Kerry did find a podium in Seattle and more or less read the same statement for the cameras.
Presumably, Kerry doesn't believe that McCain is either a stuffed-suit Republican hack or a cowardly service-slacking liar. Nor should it matter. Either what Kerry said was wrong or it wasn't. Neither his service nor his critics' lack thereof changes the meaning of what Kerry said.
But what did he say? Kerry insists he was making a joke about President Bush, not a joke about students who aren't smart enough to do better than the military. While there's virtually nothing in the text or video of his remarks to lend support for this, save for a wan smile he offered to the mute audience, it's possible that was his intent. After all, Kerry is an awful politician, a human toothache with the charisma of a 19th-century Oxford Latin tutor. One can't rule out the possibility that he simply botched a joke.
If it was a joke, it was a pretty bad one, even for him. First, Bush got better grades than Kerry at Yale. More relevant, if launching the Iraq war is a sign of stupidity and a failure to do one's homework, Kerry should avoid calling attention to the fact that he voted to approve it and defended that vote throughout his 2004 presidential campaign.
But whether or not it was a joke, it certainly sounded like Kerry was talking about the troops, because that's the way Kerry talks about everything. Kerry's a bit like one of those cavemen from the Geico commercials, only he's a throwback to a slightly more recent era: Vietnam. All of his ideas were formed from his experience as an anti-Vietnam crusader. He may have run as a born-again war hero in 2004, but his political career was founded on his activism against a war he repeatedly labeled a crime.
That's why few gave Kerry the benefit of the doubt. The idea that the military is the last refuge for the lumpen-proletariat is a Vietnam-era chestnut that continues to pop up in liberal talking points. It wasn't very accurate during Vietnam, and it's even less so now. A timely study of the demographics of enlistees in our all-volunteer military found that the share of recruits from the poorest American neighborhoods has declined steadily since 1999 and throughout the war. Moreover, "U.S. military enlistees are better educated, wealthier, and more rural on average than their civilian peers."
Kerry thinks it's unfair for Republicans to seize on his comments, and to an extent he's right. He obviously didn't intend to insult America's servicemen and women. But Kerry fails to understand that he - like so many fossils of his generation in the Democratic Party - sounds like he's frozen in the past. The Democratic position on Iraq is that it's Vietnam all over again, and the only time Kerry ever seems sure of himself is when he's reprising his anti-Vietnam schtick.
Sure, Republicans are seizing on his comments with the same opportunistic zeal Democrats displayed when they recently tried to paint the GOP as soft on sexual predation on congressional pages. But Kerry - like much of his party - seems determined to lend plausibility to such criticisms.