In the early months of 2004, I sent an alert to the senior staff of John Kerry’s presidential campaign. I was alarmed about a growing online movement questioning his Vietnam service. Sites like Winter Soldier, Free Republic, and others were buzzing with anti-Kerry activity and I sensed a storm heading Kerry’s way. My role as the campaign’s online communications advisor was hazy to some of the old-school strategists. Blogs were a novelty to them and if it wasn’t on the evening news, it wasn’t news.
Since my alert was about a threat to Kerry’s military career, I was directed to the leadership of his Veterans team. I informed them that trouble lay ahead and that we should begin to fight back immediately on the forums where the attacks were happening. The campaign’s decision was to monitor the online situation carefully. By August it was too late – the attack that later entered the political lexicon was about to explode through the media into the public consciousness and deal a gut-wrenching blow to Kerry’s image.
Part of the reason I joined Kerry’s team was my respect for a man who volunteered to serve his country when others were scrambling for deferments. Having grown up in a war zone in Beirut and been conscripted into the Lebanese Forces militia at 15, I was keenly aware of what it was like to be in the line of fire. The fact that Kerry was being savaged for his time in the military – a time that he chose to place himself in harm’s way – was despicable to me. It was painful to be working in his war room for the duration of the swift boat attacks and to see the aftermath.
Fast forward to 2015 and I’m watching a similar process unfold, this time with Hillary Clinton. And just as I did in 2004, I have a personal stake in the outcome. The crux of my professional career has been my work with the Clintons. I’ve been a long-time advisor to the Clinton Global Initiative and was Hillary’s digital media strategist for several years. [I use her first name only because her current campaign does, otherwise I would refer to her as Secretary Clinton]. I lived in her 2008 war room and slept with my (then) Blackberry under my pillow for all of 2007 and half of 2008.
The point of this post is simple: The 2016 election is not a replay of 2012 (the data election); it is not a replay of 2008 (the dueling histories election); it is a replay of 2004 (the swift boat election). The well-coordinated assault on the Clinton Foundation, the pillar of the Clintons’ many achievements, is analogous to the brazen assault on the pillar of John Kerry’s career, his decorated military service.
A superficial reading of swiftboating is that it is an attack on a candidate’s strength. The truism that emerged from the 2004 campaign, and that Democrats are always eager to trumpet, is that you should never leave an attack unanswered for fear of magnifying it. Hit back early and hit back hard to protect your reputation. That may be true, but swiftboating is a far more complex process, an intricate interplay between the conservative oppo/attack infrastructure and the mainstream media. In 2004, the Internet was a factor insofar as blogs were a nascent force. Today, social platforms are a mass amplifier that make swiftboating easier and faster.
The Kerry attacks were about planting seeds of doubt about his service. The media’s role was one of legitimation and magnification. Under the rubric of what they believed was justifiable news reporting, the major outlets gave the swift boat attacks the legitimacy they lacked on Free Republic.
Similarly, the full-scale barrage hitting the Clinton Foundation is the result of a complicated interplay among conservative oppo shops, rightwing authors, GOP politicians and the mainstream media, with the latter acting, once again, as a legitimating force. I am not impugning the integrity or motives of reporters. What I am saying is that they are playing a central role in the anti-Clinton attacks.
The unacknowledged hallmark of true swiftboating is that we fail to recognize the damage before it is too late, primarily because of our natural human tendency toward denial. We simply cannot fathom that a foundational element of our self-worth is being dismantled before our eyes. Unlike previous Clinton faux-scandals, this is about the very core of Hillary’s positive impact in the world.
We need to call the attack on the Clinton Foundation what it is: the swiftboating of Hillary Clinton.
Paul Waldman elaborates:
Clinton opponents, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the news media, have been [successful] at taking a charitable foundation that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on worthy causes and turning it into something that is widely assumed to be shady and suspect by its very nature.
The Clinton Foundation and CGI have saved millions of lives. The Clinton family are rightfully proud of the immense good they’ve done in the world through their foundation. Despite mountains of digital ink, not a shred of wrongdoing has been demonstrated on the part of the Clintons or their staff. As it was with John Kerry, this is all about the so-called “appearance of impropriety,” not any actual impropriety. It is a partisan political attack designed to hobble Hillary’s election prospects.
The playbook to deal with this attack is not from the data-driven 2012 Obama campaign nor from the grassroots movement-building of 2008. It is from the long summer of 2004.