IMAGE: John McCain with his Navy squadron
Anonymous  /  AP
John McCain, front right, with his squadron in 1965 was a former Navy fighter pilot who was captured by the Vietnamese, tortured and imprisoned for more than five years.  What factor is that in the race for the presidency?
updated 7/2/2008 2:00:16 PM ET 2008-07-02T18:00:16

OK, we get it. Barack Obama doesn't want to be John Kerry.

That's been Obama's theme this week on the campaign trail. Speaking about his patriotism Monday in Independence, Mo., Obama made it clear that he wouldn't let anyone "Swift Boat" him. On Tuesday, he traveled to rural Ohio to promote the role of faith in the public square. And today, he's in the heart of evangelical country, Colorado Springs, to talk national service. Obama isn't avoiding "bitter" rural folks, he's embracing them. Message: Bring it on. Anywhere, anytime. Even in places that don't serve sushi or endive salad.

But Wesley Clark stepped all over that strategy with his John McCain comment on "Face the Nation." In response to a question from moderator Bob Schieffer, Clark said "riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down" is not "a qualification to be president." He was not the first Democrat to stir controversy with remarks on McCain's military service. In April, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., told the Charleston Gazette that "McCain was a fighter pilot, who dropped laser-guided missiles from 35,000 feet. He was long gone when they hit. What happened when they get to the ground? He doesn't know. You have to care about the lives of people."

These comments show that many Democrats have taken away the wrong lessons from Kerry's loss. To be sure, Clark didn't say outright that McCain's service was a sham. But in trying to argue that McCain is no more qualified to be president than Obama, he tried to undercut McCain's experience instead of showing confidence in Obama.

Video: McCain’s ace card The losses of two decorated Vietnam vets, Kerry in 2004 and Georgia Sen. Max Cleland in 2002, have convinced Democrats that they can't, under any circumstances, allow Republicans to own the patriotism card. But it also means that they are often more reactionary than reflective when dealing with questions of military service.

If Clark or other Democrats want to ease voter anxiety over Obama's military inexperience, they need to do two things:

First, stop trying to deconstruct and psychoanalyze McCain's military experience. If voters know anything about McCain, it's his experience as a prisoner of war. This is not a point of debate.

Some party operatives and political insiders argue that for Obama to succeed, he must undermine McCain's hero image. What an utter waste of time. Not only is it not believable -- the guy spent five years in a Vietnamese prison camp, for crying out loud -- it's also counterproductive. Any time "military service" is uttered, regardless of the intent or the context, it gives McCain and his allies the opportunity to steer the debate back to the terrain where he's most confident.

Instead, show faith in Obama's judgment. Remember, "experience doesn't equal good judgment" was an effective argument in the primary. Here's how to update it: "Hey, I have lots of experience in military/foreign affairs and I would proudly and confidently serve under Obama as my commander in chief." Pretty easy, eh?

Also, news flash: This isn't 2004. The economy, not Iraq or the war on terror, dominates the political landscape. And voters are more primed for change than any time since 1992.

McCain's initial response to Clark's remarks shows just how aware of the current dynamic he is. He noted that this debate "doesn't reduce the price of a gallon of gas by one penny. It doesn't achieve our energy independence or make it come any closer... and it certainly doesn't do anything to address the challenges that Americans have in keeping their jobs, their homes and supporting their families." Aren't these the issues that Democrats want to fight on?

Obama can't succeed at being the "un-Kerry" if Democrats are stuck trying to win the last election.           

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Clark defends McCain comments


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