If Nate Silver’s band of Bayesians can be believed, former Vice President Joe Biden is winning the 2020 presidential race’s “endorsement primary”—and by a substantial margin. Whether this stray factoid makes a difference in an era of weak political parties and skepticism of elite opinion is a question that can’t be answered, but Biden nevertheless has a new data point to brag about: John Kerry has added his endorsement to the pile.
Perhaps this was never in doubt, seeing as the two men have forged a strong fraternal bond as both Senate contemporaries and alumni of the Obama administration. In a statement released on Thursday, Kerry cites the ineffable logic of the match: “I believe Joe Biden is the President our country desperately needs right now, not because I’ve known Joe so long, but because I know Joe so well.” But Kerry’s endorsement also comes loaded with an undeniable paradox. There is no one better suited to disabusing Biden of his notion that Republicans will have an “epiphany” and become a peaceful and collaborative party than the man who famously fell prey to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Or rather, there is almost no one better suited to the task. There are the Republicans themselves, who have gone to extravagant, mendacious lengths to ruin Biden’s electoral hopes and destroy his good name in the effort. This is, at bottom, the essence of Swift Boat tactics, which—far from disappearing from American life at the conclusion of Kerry’s ill-fated 2004 presidential campaign—have become a mainstay in Republican politics. Having been perfected over time, they are being deployed today against Biden.
During Kerry’s campaign—in which he, much like Biden, had positioned himself as the candidate who would restore the decency of the presidency frittered away by his incumbent opponent, George W. Bush—the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth emerged into public life with a letter, in which 250 signatories claimed to have served alongside Kerry during the Vietnam War, each attesting to the Massachusetts senator’s serial misdeeds. Of those 250 claimants, only Steven Gardner had served in close proximity to Kerry, and only for a month and a half. Extant military records demonstrated that several of those who emerged as Kerry’s decriers had, during the war, personally signed their names to various commendations.
Their lies should not have held up under scrutiny. But the Swift Boaters managed to exploit a major flaw in the ethos of the political press: the media’s preference for documenting the optics of a controversy in an electoral setting rather than settling the matter at hand with forthright truth-telling. For every reported account that blasted the Swift Boat Veterans for their wanton lies, there was another that treated the matter as being up for debate. An “investigative” report by The Washington Post’s Michael Dobbs concluded that the Swift Boaters’ accusations were merely “incomplete,” and that both sides of the dispute had “withheld information from the public record and provided [a] ... sometimes inaccurate picture of what took place.” ABC News’ The Note—that era’s morning tip sheet of record—summed the matter up: “If John Kerry can’t build a campaign organization that can de-fang 250 guys spending a million bucks, how good a president could he possibly be?”
The way in which The Note neatly transferred the responsibility for exposing the Swift Boat lie, traditionally the job of journalists, to Kerry neatly mirrors the means by which Trump had planned to sabotage Biden: By extorting from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy a public announcement of an inquiry into Hunter Biden’s activities on the board of Burisma, Trump had hoped to create a similar shiny object for cable news to chase and to endlessly speculate on how well Biden was managing to disarm the attack. Much like the Republican Party of Kerry’s era, who gleefully provided convention-goers with Purple Heart–adorned Band-Aids to wear in a mocking tribute to the Swift Boat Veterans, GOP politicians and their allies in the media have gone all in on furthering Trump’s original con.
A clear line can be drawn from the Swift Boat Veterans’ early experiments in ratfuckery to the birtherism of the Obama era; the rampant, wild-eyed treatment of Hillary Clinton at the hands of charlatans like Blood Feud author Ed Klein; the gonzo antics of James O’Keefe; the media takeover of right-wing propagandists at the Sinclair Broadcast Group, right to President Trump’s own two-bit criminal empire. The only way our current situation bears any distinction is that on this occasion, Trump got caught out, thanks to an anonymous whistleblower who managed to implant their own narrative into the media hive mind ahead of the one that Trump had hoped to author himself.
Apart from that, absolutely none of this is new. Those on the hunt for Republican epiphanies should look back to 2004 for the one they’ve been consistently having for over a decade. It’s the same inspiration that powered the Republican response to the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Throughout Vindman’s time before the impeachment inquiry panel, Republican legislators and their media allies made coordinated insinuations about Vindman’s loyalty, his patriotism, even the military decorations he wore on the day. Pray tell, where have we seen this before?
That’s why this current Biden-Kerry alliance is so maddening. Biden believes that the Trump presidency is an aberration, a poisonous fog that the GOP has temporarily wandered into and allowed to cloud their brains. The theory of the Biden presidency, which the candidate has fulsomely advanced, is that once he’s installed in the Oval Office, the fog will lift, the minds of Republicans will clear, and together, everyone will walk hand in hand into a new era of bipartisan comity and substantive debate. This is a dangerous and incorrect idea, and one wonders how Biden could have possibly gleaned it from eight years’ experience in the Obama White House.
The GOP has a different long-term goal in mind, and it’s to perfect Trumpism rather than change course after some sort of electoral chastening. As my colleague Matt Ford had occasion to remark after Attorney General Bill Barr gave a speech to the Federalist Society, the Republican Party is deeply invested in furthering Trump’s vision of maximal executive power, married to the judicially enabled characterization of resistance to conservative will as constitutionally illegitimate. That bright line of dishonor, emanating from the Swift Boaters, extends into the foreseeable future.
But to endorse Biden is to endorse his naïve alternative concept of the Republicans’ destiny. There’s no doubt that many of Biden’s allies desperately want to see his Panglossian vision come about, but Kerry is armed with the not-so-secret knowledge of the trap his Senate colleague is stumbling toward. The only reason not to shake Biden from his belief that he will bring about the Republican redemption is that there isn’t anything else animating the Biden campaign. To save Biden from himself, Kerry would have to tear out Biden’s heart. And so, Kerry’s Swift Boat history likely will remain locked away—a trick of memory, or the memory of a trick.