WASHINGTON -- A lot of political watchers have been wondering whether an "October surprise" might help to save the Republicans from an anticipated disaster in the midterm elections. It appears to have come from Sen. John Kerry.
While discussing the value of education during a campaign event this week at Pasadena City College near Los Angeles, the Massachusetts Democrat said: "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."
The line got a few laughs from the supportive collegiate audience, according to reports, and gasps from elsewhere across the country. There he goes again, I thought, afflicted by combat-boot-in-mouth disease.
I am certain that Mr. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, did not mean to take a coldhearted shot at the intelligence of our troops in Iraq. That's only how he sounded. As a result, he once again revealed a tin ear for how the things he says sound to those who hear them.
We learned that during Mr. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, when he tried to explain his position on funding the Iraq war: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." That sound bite, repeated in countless attack ads, helped President Bush's re-election campaign pin the "flip-flopper" label on Mr. Kerry, masking Mr. Bush's "stay-the-course" stubbornness that has since made the president's Iraq policy a Republican liability.
Now Democratic candidates across the country who had invited Mr. Kerry to campaign with them are backpedaling away, just as embattled Republican candidates have been avoiding President Bush.
White House spokesman Tony Snow had to contain his glee in order to show proper indignation over Mr. Kerry's comments. "What Senator Kerry ought to do first is apologize to the troops," Mr. Snow said in a news briefing. "This is an absolute insult, and I'm a little astonished that he didn't figure it out already. I mean, you know, as far as Senator Kerry - I mean, you've seen me. If I say something stupid, I apologize as quickly as possible. And this is something for which he ought to apologize."
Apology is the usual follow-up to gaffes, and Mr. Kerry did apologize Wednesday to any service members he might have offended, explaining that he had botched a joke about Mr. Bush.
But Mr. Kerry's initial response was to go on the offensive. His office directed a public statement "in response to White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, assorted right-wing nut jobs, and right-wing talk show hosts desperately distorting Kerry's comments. ... If anyone thinks a veteran would criticize the more than 140,000 heroes serving in Iraq and not the president who got us stuck there, they're crazy.
"This is the classic GOP playbook. I'm sick and tired of these despicable Republican attacks that always seem to come from those who never can be found to serve in war, but love to attack those who did."
Mr. Kerry, like a general fighting a war the way he should have fought the previous one, has learned to respond quickly to attacks and with overwhelming force. Unfortunately, this is the sort of situation where name-calling only reduces you to the level of those over whom you would like to show moral superiority.
As for Mr. Kerry's political future, he's been testing the waters for a comeback presidential campaign. With his fiery remarks about right-wing "nut jobs," the notoriously cool Mr. Kerry seems to be taking a page from Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean's playbook. Mr. Dean believes strongly in firing up the Democratic base with aggressive attacks against Republicans.
Passion has its value, but with many Democrats swooning over Sen. Barack Obama's recent announcement that he, too, is thinking about running for president, Americans these days may be looking for moderation more than mudslinging. If so, Mr. Kerry could find himself fighting yet another new war with tactics that he should have used in the last one.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.
Trudy Rubin's column will return Tuesday.