John Kerry didn't do his party any favors with his "botched joke" Monday, and a lot of Democrats are probably relieved to hear that he's headed back to Washington, apparently to sit out the rest of the election season.
It's not that what Kerry said will, in and of itself, change the course of the election. But after weeks in which the Democrats have won news cycle after news cycle, weeks in which the Republicans have been stuck talking about George W. Bush and defending or distancing themselves from his war on Iraq, Kerry gave the Republicans the break they couldn't buy for themselves. For the last 24 hours, cable news and talk radio have been filled with talk of Kerry's words rather than Bush's woes. For the last 24 hours, Democrats have been denied the chance to build on the wave that might sweep them to victory next week
More than anything else, the episode reminds us of Kerry's Mary Cheney moment in 2004. Kerry was well on his way to defeating George W. Bush in three consecutive presidential debates when he blurted out, in the third debate, that Dick Cheney's daughter was a lesbian. Did it cost him the election? Probably not. But it gave the Republicans something to talk about for a couple of days, something other than the momentum Kerry was suddenly feeling. In a race as close as 2004's was -- in a race as close as this one will be -- neither party can afford to hand a day or two to the other.
So here we go again. Kerry has tried to make things better by pushing back hard and then trying to disappear. His staff has tried to explain what he was supposed to say: "Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush." Is that what Kerry's text really said? We don't know, but having sat through dozens of Kerry campaign events in 2004, we can't say that we'd be even a little bit surprised if Kerry diverged -- awkwardly -- from the words that had been written for him.
The important question now, of course, is what happens next. Can the Democrats get the media focused back on the issues that matter to Americans -- issues on which the voters trust Democrats more -- or will the Republicans succeed in making Kerry a 24/7 poster boy for the "blame America first crowd"? Ultimately, that probably turns on whether voters have finally taken to heart the lessons of the last three and half years: That the people who talk the loudest about "supporting the troops" are the same ones who sent more than 2,800 of them to their deaths in a pointless war that won't end soon or well.
The Democrats need this election to be about that war. The Republicans need it to be about something else -- anything else -- and what they've got at the moment are Kerry's words. It's not much of a counterpunch: Five seconds of rhetorical blunder vs. a three-and-a-half-year-old war that has cost more than $300 billion and claimed tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives. The Republicans know they can't win that fight, and that's why they're working hard to transform Kerry's words into something more sweeping: Democrats secretly hold our troops in contempt, and Kerry just let the cat out of the bag.
In a fundraising solicitation e-mailed to supporters this morning, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman says that Kerry's comments reveal "the truth about what Democrats represent." He explains: "In Kerry's cocoon of privilege, those who serve in our military are failures who never did their homework or 'made an effort to be smart.'"
"Cocoon of privilege"? So much for all those GOP complaints about "class warfare." But even putting that aside, Mehlman's missive is remarkable for what he hopes voters won't remember: Kerry left whatever "cocoon of privilege" he enjoyed as a young man when he volunteered for service in Vietnam after graduating from Yale. Bush stayed in his, somehow obtaining a stateside assignment in the Texas Air National Guard that he didn't even bother to complete. Dick Cheney never served in the military. Neither did Mehlman himself. Does Mehlman really think that he has standing to complain about how John Kerry views military service? Will the voters really let him?
Tony Snow -- another Bush man who never served -- had the audacity to say Tuesday that Tammy Duckworth ought to have to answer for Kerry's comments. Duckworth is running for Congress in Illinois, and Snow noted that she has been "citing" her "military record" in her campaign. What he didn't say is what he hopes people won't factor in: Duckworth lost both of her legs while serving in Iraq. Does Snow actually think that Duckworth and Jim Webb and the other Democratic vets running for Congress hold our troops in contempt? Does anyone outside the right-wing echo chamber really believe that anymore?
George W. Bush once said that "you can't get fooled again." His people plainly hope that he's wrong, that the American people can be fooled at least one more time before the Bush years finally come to an end. Come Tuesday, we'll find out.