As I write this, John McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee for President, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are slugging it out for the Democratic nomination.
What do we suppose Karl Rove is planning to do?
Back in 2004, his candidate, George W. Bush, was seriously handicapped by the fact that during the Vietnam War, his father had arranged for him to get a safe and cushy berth in the Texas Air National Guard, and even then GWB had been sloppy and irresponsible about performing his duties. And he was running against John Kerry, a Vietnam combat veteran who had won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts for his service to his country. How could Rove overcome that?
It seemed impossible, but now we know about "swift boating."
Rove arranged for a surrogate group to come out with accusations against Kerry that were so over-the-top outrageous that they sucked all the oxygen out of the debate. Fox News and right-wing commentators beat the drum for these accusations to the point that the rest of the media went along to "report on the debate."
Compared with bogus accusations against John Kerry that essentially amounted to cowardice and treason against his comrades, the fully justified accusations of draft-dodging and irresponsibility against George W. Bush sounded like small potatoes. Bush's campaign handicap was neutralized, and of course he went on to win the election. It's a campaign maneuver worthy of a chess master, or of Joseph Goebbels.
This is not the first time Rove has used this trick, either. Recall the rumors about John McCain's "illegitimate black child" (his adopted daughter is from Bangladesh) that cost him the South Carolina primary, and ended his campaign for the Republican nomination in 2000.
So, what's it going to be this time? And how do we neutralize this tactic?
It seems to me that the right answer is laughter.
Anticipate the attack. Create a high-profile contest, in which people can bet on the nature of the over-the-top accusations that will be blasted against either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, once the Democratic nomination is in place. Give an award for the first person who gets it right.
Show everybody exactly how this campaign trick works, in advance, so they just laugh when the real thing gets trotted out.
Mark Twain once said, "The human race, in all its poverty, has only one truly effective weapon: laughter. Against the assault of laughter ... nothing can stand." Let's use that weapon.