ABC’s Rick Klein and The Atlantic’s James Fallows, among others, describe criticism of Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain, and his evolving descriptions of it, as a “Swift Boat-style” attack.
Fallows, who has apparently received some criticism for his use of the term, offers a defense that highlights, but does not address, a key problem with its application in this context:
FALLOWS: As I said, the Bain controversy is similar to " 'Swiftboating' without the falsehoods." You may think that is like saying "war without the violence," but please follow along.In just eight words -- “that is like saying ‘war without the violence” -- Fallows identifies the problem with his use of the term “Swiftboating.” In his other 790 words, Fallows doesn’t even try to offer a response to this critique. He raises it right at the very beginning of his piece, then completely ignores it in favor of a lengthy explanation of the problems Romney faces as a result of his refusal to release his taxes (though in a previous campaign he called on an opponent who had already released tax documents to release her husband’s taxes as well) and his contradictory statements about his leadership of Bain. But nobody disputes those problems, or needs them spelled out. The question Fallows is ostensibly addressing is whether it is appropriate to use the term “Swiftboating” under the circumstances. It is not.
The essential quality of Swiftboating is the use of vicious, reprehensible lies to achieve a political objective. The Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry from which the term is derived were the false claims that a heavily decorated Vietnam veteran who received, among other honors, two Purple Hearts, had not actually deserved his combat medals. Falsely denigrating the military service of a two-time Purple Heart winner is about as low as you can sink in American politics. Lies about military service are seen as so unconscionable that Congress and President Bush made it a crime to falsely claim to have received a military honor. (The Supreme Court recently struck down the Stolen Valor Act as a violation of free speech, a decision with which I agree.) The act of falsely claiming to have received military honors is so universally reviled that congress unanimously made it illegal. Falsely claiming someone else didn’t deserve military honors s/he was awarded is at least as bad. And that’s what the so-called Swift Boat Veterans For Truth did.
The effect of this kind of 'Swiftboating' is, as I pointed out, to change a candidate's presumed strength into his weakness, or vulnerability. The term's origin is of course the 2004 general election campaign, when falsehood-filled accounts of John Kerry's record (as a Swift boat naval officer in Vietnam) turned what he presumed would be a strength, his military record, into something he had to defend and explain. Long before the Swift boat episode, this jiujutsu technique was a specialty of Karl Rove's.He then identifies “other examples of candidates who had that switch pulled on them” including Barack Obama asking during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries what the benefit of Hillary Clinton’s supposed advantage in governing experience was “if it led her to support the Iraq war,” Bill Clinton turning George H. W. Bush’s supposed foreign policy advantage into a negative by portraying Bush as out of touch with domestic economic concerns, and Bush’s use of Willie Horton to undermine Michael Dukakis’s reputation for competence. Why on earth should any of these things be described as “Swiftboating”? Two of them preceded the actual Swiftboating of John Kerry, and none of them were, at their core, morally repugnant lies. (The use of Horton against Dukakis is widely seen as morally repugnant -- but for the ad’s racism far more than for any falsehoods involved.)
If the use of the term “Swiftboating” in this context was merely an imprecise analogy designed to grab attention, few would care. Most of us use ill-fitting metaphors and analogies from time to time, with little harm done. But in this case there is harm done. Actual Swiftboating involved some of the most unconscionable lies ever to have been widely deployed in American politics. If we define it instead merely as a “jiujutsu technique,” we remove some of the disincentive for people to engage in similar lies in the future -- and, indeed, may even encourage it. If there isn’t a stigma attached to telling vile lies, if it’s portrayed as just another political technique without value judgements attached, we give tremendous advantage to people who tell vile lies: They reap the benefits without paying any price.
I’ve written often about similar concepts: If we pretend everyone is equally guilty of partisanship, we incentivize the very behavior we decry. If we give lies and the truth equal standing (or, worse, privilege the lie or pretend everyone is equally dishonest) we encourage people to lie. And when we dilute terms like “Nixonian” and “Swiftboating” by applying them to comparatively innocuous behavior, we undermine one of the few checks that exist on corrosive actions: The possibility that bad actors will be recognized as such. We tell them that they may as well do the worst they can think of, because we’ll apply the same label to their actions and to their opponents’ more tame actions.