As John Amato, from Crooks and Liars assiduously points out: Maureen Dowd, Steven Benen, Ana Marie Cox, and Ben Smith, among others have noted how John McCain is playing his war hero card - hard. (Newsweek's Howard Fineman even argues using this POW reference so frequently may backfire come RNC convention time.)
But I think that's a misread.
Here's why it works:
#1. If ever anyone were born with a silver spoon in the military, John McCain had one. He is the son of an admiral and for several years was held a as a prisoner of war, a POW, in Vietnam. While being the son of an admiral might 'qualify' him as an elitist, this too ends up being a weak criticism to make. Why? Because McCain's been talking about 'his story' for years. Here's a clip for 1985. Does the lefty press really want to try to undo more than 20 years of PR in less than 3 months? It's a story McCain has been tweaking, with some variation, for many many years; critiquing it's overuse is too little, too late.
And #2. The American psychodrama unfolds something like this: Americans are afraid. They value what they perceive as courage. They value someone who will defend against the outsider, who will not turn his back on his country, who will do what needs to be done, who will do the hardscrabble, dirty fight and not look back. This is the role we expect from (war) heroes.
John Kerry's failure is a perfect example of this at play: Kerry served in Vietnam, he was not a prisoner of war, but was awarded medals for his service, which he gave back. In this clip, Kerry tells us he "took part in shootings in free fire zones..." Americans have a tough time with guilt and regret, for the reasons I've already listed above. Kerry was not able to distill and package his emotions in a way that made the public less afraid. The 'Swift Boat Veterans for Truth' were then able to step-in and tell his story for him. And so he failed.
So knowing that Americans are afraid and having done all this legwork branding himself as a POW, the McCain camp has only two things it need to do:
- Master the power of repetition. The more you say it the more it sticks. POW is not a bad thing to have stick.
- Exploit the power of fear
So while many veterans feel the sting and the complexity of their war stories, McCain is happy to go full throttle into pimping it for votes because he knows what works.
My grandfather lost his hearing in one ear from WWII. My brother earned a bronze star fighting in Iraq last year. Neither of them talk about their wars. They both hold a quite dignity about their experiences. I think this is more common of those who serve in the forces and defend us.
So what can Dems do? Dems can finally find a real package for 'safety' or 'security'. Perhaps as Maureen Dowd suggests, McCain is fighting Vietnam over and over again in his head, and if this is the case, Dems can argue: "We don't have to fight old wars." In the end, they have to find an antidote to fear. And you already know that is. It's courage.
(And I don't mean a "Red Badge of Courage"! I'm joking in the video above. I'm of course referring here to Stephen Crane's novel about the dilemmas facing a soldier fighting during the Civil War. The main character, after many troubles, finds out what courage is.)