WASHINGTON -- For veterans of John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, the past week of debate over the fairness of making political attacks out of national security issues has brought about a bit of nostalgia and, in many cases, the chance to sit back and smirk.
The Massachusetts senator was famously submarined by attacks over his own personal service and his capacity to handle modern terrorist threats. At the time, aides to Kerry cried foul, arguing that former President George W. Bush's re-election campaign and allied groups were playing on people's fears for electoral gains. With the shoe now firmly on the other foot -- and Republicans griping over an Obama campaign web ad suggesting that Mitt Romney wouldn't have approved the raid that killed Osama bin Laden -- the collective response from the Kerry crowd is something akin to: "tough shit."
"That was then, this is now," said Steve Elmendorf, Kerry's 2004 deputy campaign manager. "This is what people do with challengers. One of the advantages of incumbency is you get to do the job and make the tough decisions and you get to make suggestions about whether the challenger is up to the job."
There is a lengthy history of presidential campaigns using the threat of terrorism, war or even nuclear annihilation to raise questions about their opponent. The most infamous remains the Daisy Ad, run just once by President Lyndon Johnson against Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, but forever memorialized as the dawn of airwave campaigns.
Bush's re-election team brought the practice to a heightened level. The president's advisers produced the infamous Wolves ad, warning voters about the nebulous threats on the horizon. His campaign attacked Kerry as un-appreciative of the troops and unwilling to make tough wartime decisions. Allied groups openly wondered if Kerry could have shown the leadership needed to respond to 9/11. The genre turned into outright character assassination when the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began raising doubts about the senator's record from Vietnam.
It is that latter attack that serves as a line of demarcation for the Obama campaign, which has argued that it's not engaging in the same tactics that Democrats once decried.
"The difference here is that we won't be swift boating Mitt Romney," Stephanie Cutter, Obama's campaign manager said in an email. "We are sticking to actual facts, not dishonest attacks and distortions. Romney said he wouldn't go into Pakistan to get Bin Laden, and then hit one of his opponents Mike Huckabee when he said that he would. That's important information to voters, because it shows a lack of judgment and a lack of strength, particularly if Romney is now saying that he would have given the same order the President did to get Bin Laden. He had a chance to get it right, without the enormous pressure of being the Commander in Chief, and he got it wrong."
Romney, on Tuesday, stressed that his opposition had never been to going after bin Laden in Pakistan but with announcing that policy publicly. "We always reserve the right to go anywhere to get bin Laden," he said, echoing the clarification he had offered back in 2007 when he first said he wouldn't move "heaven and earth" to find the al Qaeda chief.
As communications director for Kerry's '04 campaign, Cutter was a direct witness to the damage done when questions about a candidate's commander-in-chief bonafides go unanswered. The episode was scarring. And for her and other veterans of that election, as well as the Democratic Party at large, the result was an implicit pledge to never get out-macho-ed again. In 2008, that meant pledging renewed attention and resources to tracking al Qaeda as well as campaigning on a beefed-up military presence in Afghanistan. Four years later, it means contrasting successes against the opponent's blank foreign policy slate.
"This year's discussion," said David Wade, a member of the Kerry campaign press shop and now the senator's chief of staff, "is firmly rooted in Romney's record and his own words on an issue that's fundamental to being Commander in Chief. This is a debate about judgment not a false attack on the most personal and fundamental elements of a nominee's character ... No one should mistake 2004's low road for the substantive questions being asked of Mitt Romney eight years later."
Kerry himself was out of the country and unable to comment for this article.
The complaints with Obama's web ad, however, are not strictly that he's over-bragging about the political braveness in ordering the raid but, as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) noted at an event with Romney, that he's using it "as a source of negative campaigning."
Those concerns, of course, didn't surface eight years ago when the roles were reversed. Wade, for one, noted that Vice President Dick Cheney suggested a Kerry win would result in a terrorist attack, while former Georgia governor and Sen. Zell Miller (D) said the troops would have only spitballs to use as defense with Kerry as Commander in Chief.
"Romney didn't say a peep," Wade added.
But Democrats certainly did, calling Cheney and Miller's comment beneath acceptable political rhetoric. For some Kerry veterans, it's impossible to deny the irony in the fault lines developing around the current web ad uproar. They just don't care. It's nice, after all, to be the aggressor.
"The hypocrisy goes both ways," acknowledged Matthew Butler, a deputy campaign manager for Kerry and now a top official at Media Matters. "They will politicize the hell out of foreign policy and then complain when we do it. And we will complain about them doing it and then do it ourselves. But I don't think foreign policy should be out of bounds when it comes to electing a president. How can you not question the fitness of a candidate to lead the country in foreign policy crisis?
"Obama would have been killed if something had gone wrong with that mission," he said. "The fact is it is perfectly fair game to tout its success."