In jujitsu, the trick is to move quickly to leverage your opponent's strength to your advantage. In this way a lightweight can attack a person of substance and flip him.
We're watching the biggest jujitsu flip ever seen in American politics. President Bush, a slacker, a draft evader, a failure in business, a man so devoid of world curiosity that he rarely left America's shores (even checked "no overseas service" on his Air National Guard application) and a president who has misled the American people about everything from the invasion of Iraq to the cost of Medicare, has managed to flip John Kerry onto his back by turning Kerry's strengths -- his valor in Vietnam, his intellect, his expanded worldview and, yes, his nuanced thinking -- against him. In jujitsu that's how it's meant to be. In politics it's cynical and destructive -- and shamefully effective.
Like all sports fans when their man is down, Kerry's supporters are now cat-calling and quarterbacking from the sidelines.
Take the Democratic Convention. Americans, so it's said, don't like negative campaigns, and by golly this convention didn't go there. It was an attack-free, on-time event (except for Al Sharpton, bless him) and proved that the sometimes undisciplined Dems have grown up enough to run the Pentagon, not just a protest.
Then the Republican juggernaut rolled into New York and created a green zone in the mean streets of Manhattan. Helicopters thrummed overhead, protesters were contained and smiling police officers overpopulated the green zone, while their less cherubic cohorts were left to patrol the enemy zone.
The Republicans took the mean right out of the streets -- and internalized it.
With our national attention span of a nanosecond, it will soon be forgotten just how nasty and untruthful the Republican Convention really was. The flip-flopping message of "Be very afraid," delivered by Vice President Dr. Doom, was countered by "What, me worry?" delivered by President Alfred E. Newman. All those Republicans who were so offended by Rick Kahn's grieving over-the-top speech at the Wellstone memorial in 2002 were oddly silent about keynoter Zell Miller's dissembling and over-the-top rant against his former friend and colleague. Talk about gassing your own people.
But now, the critics say, Kerry blew it. The tone of the convention was too mild. Kerry should have attacked Bush, he shouldn't have made so much of his military heroism, he's got to fight back.
It's time to cut Kerry some slack. Take a look at some of the other candidates whom Karl Rove's tactics have hog-tied with lies and rumors.
Ann Richards in Texas, a popular governor, was neither a waffler nor a wonk. In 1994, when George W. Bush ran against her, his East Texas campaign chairman accused the governor of naming "avowed and activist homosexuals" to high offices. She did, and openly, but the story appeared as a dirty secret. So one of Gov. Richards' greatest strengths -- the inclusiveness of her administration -- was turned into a political liability, particularly in socially conservative East Texas.
Al Gore was a smart, dedicated public servant, a Vietnam vet with a scandal-free family life, and OK, a little wooden. They did that jujitsu thing, using the breadth and depth of his intellect to flip him. They tagged him as a chronic exaggerator and smirked at his "knowledge" on everything from the environment to the Internet. (And for the record he did play a big part in bringing us the Internet.) We know how that one ended.
The lowest blow was against Sen. Max Cleland in 2002. With Cleland ahead in the polls only weeks before the election, Rove's tactics were put to work. His opponent, Rep. Saxby Chambliss, who like Bush had opted out of Vietnam, ran TV ads challenging Cleland's loyalty to America because of some procedural votes he cast on setting up the Department of Homeland Security. Cleland lost the election. He also lost three limbs to the Vietnam War, but has more integrity, courage and strength in his remaining limb than most of us do in four.
There's a harsh pattern here. Bush and his chickenhawks are very good at attacking and destroying people. What they don't know how to do is govern.
They don't have a plan: not in America (just cut taxes), not in Afghanistan (just ignore it) and not in Iraq (just keep killing and lying). It's their pretense of knowing, their ease with dissembling and their insistence that they're right that make them the most dangerous administration in our lifetime if not our history.
What sort of opponent can stand up to them? In Iraq and Afghanistan it appears to be religious fanatics, insurgents, warlords and Osama bin Laden. In America it was Bill Clinton, but we're not likely to find another candidate with his quick chops for some time. And the mainstream media, for the most part, surrendered this match long ago.
That leaves it up to the American people. With less than 50 days left until the election it's time to stop quarterbacking Kerry and to start blowing the whistle on Bush.
Susan Lenfestey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Minneapolis writer.
© 2004 Star Tribune