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Opinion What Biden can learn from John Kerry’s mistakes

Former vice president Joe Biden at a campaign town hall meeting in Rochester, N.H., on Oct. 9. (Mary Schwalm/Reuters)

This article has been updated.

WESTERVILLE, Ohio — “In retrospect, look, I think that it was poor judgment on my part,” Hunter Biden acknowledged in an interview broadcast Tuesday on ABC. “Did I do anything improper? No, not in any way. Not in any way whatsoever.”

Three-and-a-half weeks after the first reports that President Trump had pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the business dealings of former vice president Joe Biden’s son, we finally got a chance to hear from Hunter Biden himself. In a voice and manner so like his father’s, Hunter Biden admitted that many of the opportunities that have come his way are because of his famous last name — and because he comes from “the middle of something that is . . . a swamp in many ways.”

That kind of candor is critical, and it gave his father some breathing room during Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, when the former vice president was asked whether it was appropriate for Hunter Biden to have been doing business in Ukraine while the former vice president was in office. “My son’s statement speaks for itself,” he said. But it represents only the beginning of what has to happen if Joe Biden is to halt the corrosive effect of a continuing barrage of unsubstantiated allegations and wild conspiracy theories that Trump and his fellow Republicans have spread.

Few know that better than 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, who when he was running for president saw the Silver Star that he received for valor in the Vietnam War tarnished by an organization that called itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The group began with a news conference and a relatively modest television ad buy in which they claimed Kerry’s actions in Vietnam did not warrant the decorations he received. By the time they were done with Kerry, “swiftboat” — the 50-foot aluminum craft Kerry skippered in Southeast Asia — had entered the political lexicon as a verb, describing a particularly lethal kind of smear campaign.

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Of course, there are plenty of differences between what happened then and what is going on now: While the attacks on Kerry came from a fringe group, Biden faces a chorus of disinformation that is being led from the Oval Office. Kerry had to contend with right-wing radio and Internet networks that spread disinformation via email. But social media had yet to emerge as an even more potent signal amplifier. Facebook was in its infancy, and Twitter had yet to be invented.

Still, the tactic is the same: a jujitsu move to turn a candidate’s asset — in Kerry’s case, his military record; and in Biden’s, his foreign policy expertise — into a liability. Biden could learn from some of the mistakes that Kerry made. Chief among them was trusting the advisers who initially warned the 2004 nominee against a forceful response, fearful it would only elevate the accusations against him.

At an appearance last Friday sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, Kerry reflected on what he did wrong and what that suggests for Biden. He commended a speech that Biden had given a couple of days before, in which the former vice president called for Trump’s impeachment on the grounds that he is “shooting holes in the Constitution, and we cannot let him get away with it.”

Kerry told interviewer David Axelrod, the veteran Democratic strategist who now directs the institute, that Biden’s speech was a good start, but added: “He’s got to keep repeating it. He’s going to have to bang away.” Kerry recalled that his campaign had counted on traditional media to set the record straight, and that indeed, stories doing so had run on the front pages of every major newspaper in the country.

It wasn’t enough. “This was sort of a novel event in terms of fake news, and the miscalculation was that it’s been answered, and the problem is when television is pounding away at it — and now we have a whole new set of platforms in social media — so that’s just not enough,” Kerry said. “It was a bitter lesson, obviously. We should have run ads. We should have countered it every day. We should have been out there in their face and calling them out on it.”

The experience of 2004 also suggests that both Bidens must be as transparent as possible. Kerry resisted releasing his military records, raising what turned out to be unfounded suspicions that he was hiding something significant. (The new information in them turned out to be a transcript of his mediocre college grades.) If there is something anywhere that is incriminating or embarrassing, the Bidens should get it out now.

“Don’t let up,” Kerry advised Biden. “Keep pointing out where the corruption is today. Keep pointing out who it is who’s told x-number of thousands of lies to the nation and keep pumping out there the findings that have shown [Biden] did no wrong. . . . I believe the American people ultimately will latch on to the truth. I believe that. But you’ve got to force-feed it.” And get ready to do it over and over again.

Read more:

Dana Milbank: Democrats flip the script on a cut-and-run president

Jennifer Rubin: This debate vividly demonstrated just how fluid the race really is

Karen Tumulty: Trump’s dam might be about to burst

Jennifer Rubin: How Biden can redeem himself

David Von Drehle: The Hunter Biden story is a troubling tale of privilege