THERE ARE A COUPLE of key pieces of conventional wisdom floating downstream from Washington these days. The first is that a Bush-Kerry race will be very, very close. Bush-Gore close.
The second is that Senator Kerry's anti-war radicalism following his return from service in Vietnam shouldn't--and won't--be an issue in November.
You can believe one of these views, but you cannot hold on to both. If the election really will be a replay of 2000, then every issue that moves even handfuls of voters matters a great deal.
Examples: Florida went for Bush by less than 600 votes, which means that any issue that could change 300 minds flips Florida from red to blue. Iowa went for Gore by 4,144 votes. If Kerry's radicalism still rankles with 2,075 Gore voters, then Iowa slides into the red column.
The preliminary evidence I have gathered via a playing on my radio show of the audio of Kerry's April, 1971 appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee indicates that a large part of the public is very interested in what Kerry did, and that the vast majority of that group holds him in deep contempt because of his actions, and that most of that majority are retired or active duty military. Kerry has his defenders in the military and among the veterans, but everything I have heard or read tells me that the men and women who have worn or are wearing the uniform view Kerry's antiwar activities as profoundly wrong and disqualifying for the presidency.
Kerry's rather desperate posturing on his past radicalism tells us a lot. He wants to turn every question into an attack on his patriotism, a transparent and ineffective dodge. His letter to President Bush earlier this week was also full of the worn melodrama that does not address the crucial aspect of his radical days. "As you well know," Kerry messaged the president, "Vietnam was a very difficult and painful period in our nation's history, and the struggle for our veterans continues. So it has been hard to believe that you would choose to reopen these wounds for your personal political gains."
Of course the president has done nothing of the sort, any more than Dick Cheney has challenged Kerry's patriotism, which was another of Kerry's erratic charges this week.
What is happening is the inevitable eruption of disgust from Vietnam-era soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. More than 2 million men and women served in the Vietnam theater. More than 50,000 died there. Every single one who returned and all who died have families that were directly impacted by the war--mothers, fathers, children, siblings. The number of Americans directly impacted by Vietnam must number over 10,000,000. In American politics, that's a significant number.
Then there the current members of the military, their families, and their supporters. Does Kerry's history matter to them? There is no way to know for sure, but any reasonable observer has to admit that a close election will make this issue among these voters a salient topic.
Some have argued that Kerry's past is past and anyway, Americans vote their futures. Historically, of course, that isn't correct, as Bloody Shirt elections and Watergate babies attest. There are plenty of pundits who would prefer that we not look back at Kerry's votes against the B-2, the Abrams tank, the Patriot missile, the Aegis cruiser and land-based missile defense, much less his salad days with the radicals of the early '70s. In Kerry's testimony to the Senate, he spoke approvingly of the "Indian nation of Alcatraz," the band of radicals who had occupied the island in San Francisco bay--a jarring reminder of the politics of those unhinged days. Kerry was very much a part of the strange doings of those years; there are great numbers of Americans who haven't forgotten.
Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.