In 2004, Democrats nominated John Kerry for President in large part because, as a Vietnam veteran, he would have credibility taking on George W. Bush, a war president. At least that was the idea. It turned out that Kerry was a long-winded, boring, somewhat obtuse northeastern elitist liberal. He fit the stereotype of the old-fashioned Democrat just a little too well. I can't remember a single Kerry policy position. I don't think I campaigned for him at all, and I'm almost sure I didn't give him any money. But he was a war hero!
One reason the Swift boat ads were so effective was that his Vietnam war service was the one thing that distinguished Kerry from the rest of the field of Democratic candidates. But that's not enough of a rationale to vote for someone to be president. Other than serving in Vietnam, Kerry was very much a run-of-the-mill politician. Smart and capable, but not inspiring in any way. And, of course, he completely failed to respond to the Swift boat ads effectively.
During the primaries, I read a line that goes something like this (can't remember where it's from): Nothing so exposes a person's character flaws as an American presidential campaign. By the end of that campaign, it was clear that Kerry was a solid but rather boring politician.
Now the Republicans have made the same mistake that the Democrats made in 2004. They nominated John McCain in large part because his status as a war hero - much more so than Kerry - gave him scads of credibility on national security issues. But this campaign has exposed his flaws like nothing else could: he's a volatile, tempermental, impulsive, prickly man who doesn't think things through. He really is deeply conservative on many issues, and he gets defensive when challenged. He's exploited his POW status to the point that he has cheapened it.
McCain's Vietnam experience has ended up almost the same way that Kerry's did: background noise that most voters now discount. Yes, we admire you for surviving torture, but what are you going to do for us now?
Hopefully Republicans have learned the same lessons that Democrats hopefully did: military service, regardless of how honorable, is just one qualification for being President. It's a good thing for a President to have. But it's not everything.