LOS ANGELES -- This is going to be one tough (and probably dirty) campaign. The official signal of that, I thought, was when Sen. John Kerry gave his victory speech last Tuesday night and did not mention that President Bush had called and congratulated him. He made a big deal, of course, about John Edwards' gracious concession call, then went down and dirty to trash Bush.
This was probably inevitable after the events of November 2000, when the Republicans were the ones who went down and dirty to win the presidency, sending planeloads of congressional staffers to pretend they were angry Floridians accusing Democrats of trying to overthrow legitimate government. Frothing spokesmen and lawyers filled in the blanks, while fools like me were writing of the charms of statesmanship and waiting until next time. I actually thought that American democracy was past certain of the nasty excesses of partisanship. My hero of the moment was Richard M. Nixon, who for whatever reasons did not tear the country apart by challenging the results of the dead-heat 1960 election -- and was rewarded with election himself eight years later.
Any romantic notions that survived after watching the Supreme Court take over the country for the Republicans died while I was traveling the country during the Democratic primaries won this year by tough-guy Kerry. The Democratic resentment and thirst for revenge from 2000 is fierce. "Anybody but Bush" is more than a slogan; it is a war cry by political activists who believe that Bush and his boys stole the 2000 election and then practically launched a coup d'etat, screwing the middle classes, creating something like a state religion, naming extremist judges, and attacking the United Nations and several member countries as well.
In short, the Republicans are right when they say Democrats hate Bush. They do. They also question his legitimacy and believe his vice president, Dick Cheney, is a liar, an evil man.
Kerry's speech asked no quarter and will get none. He will be hated, too -- probably is already -- and he will be vilified from coast to coast. He is, after all, running against people who attacked the patriotism of Sen. Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam -- the war that was fought while Cheney was a graduate assistant at the University of Wisconsin, saying he was too busy for war. He had, he said, "other priorities."
Perhaps this kind of "blowback" was to be expected. But even if that is true, it was surprising to see that the Democrats remembered how to run a truly nasty campaign. I, for one, was surprised to see them ready and willing to answer President Bush's Sept. 11 commercials last week, news-cycle by news-cycle. Talk about first responders -- the Kerry people had both firefighters and relatives of victims on the air immediately to complain about the president using four seconds of World Trade Center footage in his first "feel good" commercials.
"It's a slap in the face of the murders of 3,000 people. It's unconscionable," said a Twin Towers' widow, Monica Gabrielle. Her testimony and others instantaneously turned the Bush commercials around. The Bush ads seemed well within the limits of political taste to me, but that's not the point. The Democrats reacted and overreacted about taste and past promises not to politically exploit national trauma -- you would have thought they had become grown-up professional politicians, something they were not in the 2000 campaign.
The Democratic campaign, now the Kerry campaign, was good enough these past two months to force the president to come out of the White House to slug it out. But as soon as they touched gloves and Bush tried a jab or two, Kerry was on him, landing the first solid punch. We haven't seen that in a while -- neither press nor politicians have laid a glove on the "war president" -- and now it looks like we're in for a real political brawl. And it's about time.
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