Turncoats You Can Count On

I assumed that anyone who hunches over like President Bush would have a bulge in his jacket. So I dismissed the story of a concealed radio device during the first presidential debate as either a wardrobe malfunction or a left-wing conspiracy. But then, when the story was picked up by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, I suddenly found myself looking up the number of Bush’s tailor, Georges de Paris. I admit it: I gave the story more credit when it came from the right-wing Post than when I first saw it on the liberal website

By the same token, when I thought Bush had done a poor job in that same debate, I wasn’t sure of my instincts until former GOP congressman-turned-talk-show-host Joe Scarborough said so on MSNBC. If a fellow Republican said it, it must be true.

Assertions gain credibility when they come from the opposite side of the aisle. Candidates know it too. That’s why, during the second debate, when Bush wanted to add believability to an economic assertion, he didn’t cite his own secretary of the Treasury, he cited President Clinton’s -- Robert Rubin. John Kerry, when he’s criticizing the war, cites L. Paul Bremer and Donald Rumsfeld. In this campaign, the most powerful ads are the ones by filmmaker Errol Morris in which Republicans look straight into the camera and say why they are not going to vote for the president again.

There’s nothing new about this phenomenon. We all know that it’s hard to leave the warm bosom of your own side, and therefore those who do it tend to be given the benefit of the doubt. But in this election it’s reached a new peak; it’s become an apostate’s ball: You are much more likely to get noticed if you are Nixon going to China. Would the otherwise unremarkable Georgia Democratic Sen. Zell Miller have gotten a prime-time spot at the Republican convention to rant that Kerry wanted to defend the U.S. with spitballs if he weren’t ostensibly a fellow Democrat? Would Ron Reagan have had a cameo at the Democratic convention if his name were Ron Mondale?


Anyone who wades into the debate is hyperlinked to his political past. Take the salt-of-the-earth, 86-year-old onetime secretary at the Air National Guard unit in Texas in which Lt. George W. Bush served. She said she’d typed memos (not the CBS ones) from Lt. Col. Jerry Killian criticizing Bush’s absence from flight duty. But when she was identified in a New York Times story as an Al Gore voter, I wondered how many readers would bother to believe her. On the other hand, if she’d been a lifelong Republican, no one would have doubted her for a second.

The only way to detract from a political cross-dresser is to point out that crossing over can be advantageous. It can juice a flagging career (that’s what happened to new Bush cheerleader Ron Silver) or help change a family dynamic (Stephen Baldwin was overshadowed by libs Alec and Billy until he was born again as a Christian and Republican on cable TV).

Nothing helps a Democrat in trouble like a Republican, and vice versa. The most damaging accusation of the campaign -- that Kerry wasn’t brave enough to earn his medals despite Navy records and the testimony of veterans who actually served on his boat -- was first undercut by the revelation that the author of “Unfit for Command,” John O’Neill, had been handpicked by Richard Nixon’s Charles Colson to stalk Kerry in the 1970s; in other words, he was a GOP hack. O’Neill’s credibility was then partly revived by his (self-serving) revelation that he was a Gore voter in 2000.

At that point, what Kerry needed was a Republican. He could’ve tried Jim Rasmussen again (the guy who appeared out of the blue during the Iowa primary to tell how Kerry saved him from drowning in the Mekong Delta), but these things usually work only once.

The person Kerry really wanted to defend him (despite the eloquence of former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey) was Republican Sen. John McCain. But McCain, whose daily commute is across the aisle, punted. He gave only a halfhearted defense to Kerry, but that was it -- and he earned a big, well-photographed hug from Bush in return. Aides say McCain worked behind the scenes to get Bush to denounce the ads against a fellow sailor, but failed. Behind the scenes doesn’t count. You have to go against your team in public.

It’s too late for surrogates now. That’s why each candidate needs to be on the lookout for that part of himself that sees some truth in the other side.