John McCain and Barack Obama are about to face a moral choice. It will probably be made in bits and pieces over the next five months, but we can imagine it as a single dramatic incident: the adviser approaches and says, "Yes or no. Do you want to swift-boat?" If you were the presidential candidate, what answer would you give?
Swift-boat is shorthand for the brilliant, despicable Republican campaign strategy in 2004 that turned John Kerry's honorable service in Vietnam into a negative factor in his campaign. The phrase has become more broadly the term for a particular category of campaign tactics and has even become a verb. To "swift-boat" somebody is to use these tactics against him or her. If you remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign and don't see anything wrong with it--or if you believe it was the work of "independent" operatives unconnected to George W. Bush's campaign--I'm not going to waste precious space on the back page of a national newsmagazine arguing with you.
We might more usefully argue about the definition of swift-boating. There have, of course, been dirty politics and outrageous infamies since the beginning of the Republic. Swift-boating is not about that. Nor is it merely negative campaigning. There's nothing wrong with criticizing your opponent if the criticism is accurate and important. Swift-boating's essence is a particular kind of dishonesty, or rather a particular combination of shadowy dishonesties. It usually involves a complex web of facts, many of which may even be true. It exploits its own complexity and the reluctance of the media to adjudicate factual disputes. No matter how thoroughly a charge may be discredited, enough taint remains to support an argument. The fundamental dishonesty is the suggestion that the issue, whatever it is, really matters. This is how swift-boating differs from its cousin McCarthyism, which deals in totally baseless charges that would be deeply serious if true. Swift-boating is McCarthyism lite. There is usually a little something to the accusation but not enough to make it legitimately matter.
The raw material for swift-boating this year is already apparent. There is Obama's loony pastor, his friendship with a former radical, his dealings with a convicted financial sleaze. McCain's friendship with a woman lobbyist is an issue the New York Times fumbled, but it could resurface. McCain was one of the Keating Five, tied to a financial and influence scandal from the early '90s that could be brought down from the attic. And there is his alleged bad temper, a potentially legitimate issue that could be blended with his age in unsavory ways.
To swift-boat or not to swift-boat? What'll it be? Both candidates have publicly sworn off the practice, and McCain was admirably loud in denouncing the Swift Boat campaign in 2004. Of course, that was when he was still a maverick. I've been shocked by how many Democrats, in an informal poll, take the position that whatever it takes to win is justified. They say, first, that the Republicans will do anything to win, and it would be naive to attempt a higher standard. Second, they say, the stakes in this election are so high that an excess of scruples in trying to win it would be morality misplaced. Many Republicans agree at least with this second point. The belief of some Democrats that only scruples are stopping them from swift-boating as effectively as Republicans is almost touching.
If these junior Machiavellis are right, there is no hope for a civilized campaign. McCain will do what Republican candidates always do, and Obama will use skills developed over the long primary season. Or is there hope in the fact that decency is a big part of both candidates' "brands"? If so, swift-boating could backfire. But it never has before. And the most enthusiastic and skilled swift-boater so far--George Bush the Elder, who built his campaign against Michael Dukakis around the Pledge of Allegiance and a furloughed convict named Willie Horton--was also someone peddling decency as part of his official persona. History shows that any candidate who relies on the voters to punish a swift-boater is going to be disappointed. People tell pollsters they are sick of nasty politics, then they respond to it every time.
On the other hand, like generals and the last war, pundits are always fighting the last election. Maybe swift-boating will disappear this year. But do you want to bet the presidency on that? Your advisers are knocking on the door with a question. Swift-boat or no?