Remember Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the right-wing goon squad whose defamatory insinuations helped sink John Kerry's presidential campaign? They're back! This afternoon, key Swift boaters George "Bud" Day, Mary Jane McManus and Carlton Sherwood are holding a little reunion, in the guise of a panel discussion at the American Conservative Union's annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The panel topic? "The Left's Repeated Campaign Against the American Soldier."
The reemergence of the Swifties is depressing, but not because they're likely to do much damage to progressive candidates in the next election cycle. "Swift Boat II: The Sequel" will have a different ending from "Swift Boat I" because Americans just aren't that dumb.
Polls show the American public — and the troops themselves — to be deeply critical of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and concerned about the war's devastating effect on the American military. We've watched the situation in Iraq go from bad to worse, from worse to worst and then from worst to unthinkably awful, as "insecurity" morphed into "sectarian violence," then into chaos and civil war.
We've seen the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq roughly tripled since the 2004 election. We've seen the war in Iraq fuel anti-U.S. sentiment worldwide; we've seen copycat suicide bombings increase in Afghanistan; we've seen the Iraq conflict further inflame tensions with Iran and throughout the Middle East; we've seen hostile states around the globe emboldened by the image of the U.S. caught in a quagmire; we've seen Al Qaeda regroup; we've seen Iraq become a top training ground for aspiring terrorists from all over.
Most of all, we've seen the Bush administration consistently place ideology over reality, remaining willfully blind to the fact that its ill-conceived war is making us less secure — and breaking the back of the American military. If there's a "campaign against the American soldier," it's the administration that's been engaged in that campaign, not "the left" — and by now, most Americans know it.
What's depressing about the reemergence of the Swifties, though, is that it's symbolic of the increasing takeover of the "conservative" movement by unprincipled, right-wing extremists.
The Swifties began as a fringe group. Their anti-Kerry attack ads were effective in 2004 (thanks in part to Kerry's slowness in responding), but they were condemned universally as a new low in the history of bottom-feeding smear campaigns. John McCain criticized them as "dishonest and dishonorable," and the Bush campaign sought to distance itself from the group's tactics. Association with the Swifties forced the resignations of two Bush campaign aides, including Ben Ginsburg, the campaign's top election law expert.
So why has the Conservative Political Action Conference resuscitated several already discredited Swifties for an inflammatory panel?
The conference — cosponsored by more than 70 conservative groups and with an audience likely to exceed 5,000 this year — has long been a showcase for the heart and soul of American conservatism. Each year it attracts top White House officials and Republican presidential hopefuls (this year, big-name speakers include Dick Cheney, Tony Snow, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Sam Brownback, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney).
The inclusion of Swift boat operatives on the CPAC agenda demonstrates the continued radicalization of the conservative movement, which seems determined to render itself irrelevant. Yesterday's fringe has become today's conservative mainstream. The Washington Times, one of the right's main media outlets, approvingly refers to "The Left's Repeated Campaign Against the American Soldier" as "one of the more timely titles of CPAC's slate of panel discussions."
Of course, the Swifties' presence on the agenda is hardly the only evidence that the lunatics have taken over the asylum at CPAC. Other giveaways include some unintentionally humorous agenda items: Oliver North — he of the Iran-Contra scandal — will be presenting the "Defender of the Constitution Award," for instance, while right-wing attack blogger Michelle Malkin, whose work has been repeatedly criticized for its cavalier attitude toward facts, gets the "Accuracy in Media Award."
All this is bad news for the conservative movement, which will only become more marginal if it continues to embrace its lunatic fringe. But it's probably good for progressives, who stand to gain the most from conservatism's self-destruction.