Democratic distractions

Posted: Sep 23, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- High-level Democrats, including some inside the Kerry campaign, were appalled by this week's political sideshow. Just as John Kerry began finding his voice on Iraq, he was in danger of being drowned out by Democratic operatives Joe Lockhart and Terry McAuliffe. But the Democratic presidential candidate had only himself to blame.
Democratic critics can hardly comprehend that Lockhart, President Bill Clinton's spokesman who was recently taken aboard the campaign by Sen. Kerry, telephoned a notorious Bush-bashing eccentric who was CBS's source of the discredited documents. They also are unhappy that McAuliffe, the Clinton-selected Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman who supposedly was eclipsed when Kerry clinched the nomination, has launched an advertising campaign attacking President Bush's National Guard record.

 The complaints are not limited to specific cases. One party activist with a nationally familiar name calls Lockhart and McAuliffe "attack dogs" who go beyond the facts and get Sen. Kerry off message. But the nominee brought Lockhart into the campaign and could, with a single telephone call, suppress McAuliffe's Bush-bashing. This is Kerry's campaign, and he is responsible for these distractions from his new focus on Iraq.

 It is hard to believe that so experienced a political operative as Lockhart followed a CBS producer's suggestion to telephone retired National Guardsman Bill Burkett, whose claims of evidence to destroy Bush were rejected by Al Gore's campaign in 2000. (Both Lockhart and Burkett say the documents were not even discussed during their brief conversation.) Lockhart was added to the Kerry campaign team because he is renowned as a smart political insider who knows everything. Anyone vaguely familiar with politicians was aware of Burkett's unstable background, but Lockhart told CNN interviewer Bill Hemmer Tuesday: "I didn't know who the guy was."

 When Hemmer pressed Lockhart about the propriety of calling Burkett, the Kerry spokesman tried to change the subject. He contended that Bush White House spokesman Scott McClellan "has held two White House briefings in the last two months" -- an accusation he elaborated and repeated. However many briefings actually were held within the confines of the White House, Bush's staff has conducted 37 question-and-answer sessions with White House reporters since the beginning of August.

 When Kerry clinched the presidential nomination, nobody expected Lockhart to be setting the tone for the senator's general election campaign. Even more unexpected is McAuliffe running an independent TV campaign. A much criticized Washington wheeler-dealer, McAuliffe was imposed as chairman by Bill and Hillary Clinton on reluctant DNC members after the 2000 election. In March, Kerry staffers whispered that McAuliffe probably would not complete the year in the chairmanship and certainly would not be speaking out any longer.

 They were wrong on both counts. McAuliffe not only stayed at the DNC but has been one of the party's most visible talkers. His implication that Bush senior adviser Karl Rove gave the disputed documents to CBS provided the distinctive McAuliffe touch. Shortly after "60 Minutes" used questionable documents in assailing the Bush service, McAuliffe and the DNC put out a TV ad ("Fortunate Son") repeating the gist of the CBS program. The Kerry campaign was alerted in advance to these ads.

 The National Guard question distracts the public from tuning in to Kerry's concentration on Iraq as the one issue capable of erasing Bush's lead. Kerry's speech Monday at New York University was stylistically the campaign's best, though his four-point program sounded Bush-like and left his excited partisan audience on a downer.

Even without self-imposed distractions, Iraq does not offer an easy path into the Oval Office. The president's strategists were delighted that Kerry said "we have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure" -- suggesting the U.S. is worse off with Saddam Hussein out of power. It is probably too late for Kerry to change his stance by promising early troop withdrawal -- a step risking all on one roll of the dice.

 Nevertheless, it is difficult to exaggerate the Democratic dismay over Lockhart and McAuliffe. In talking to a variety of Democrats who seldom agree with each other, I was surprised by the unanimous concern over the distractions. John Kerry might be advised to bring order to his own campaign as he tries to pin the torment of Iraq on George W. Bush.