Although I am absolutely sick of the Kerry Vietnam story, I have to admit that he brought it upon himself. Kerry made the decision to hype his Vietnam service, thereby inviting every Republican scum-hurler in America to try to punch holes in his story, fair or unfair. The result is that almost no one can name any significant domestic policy initiative of the Kerry-Edwards campaign. The point of nominating Edwards for V-P was to help put domestic issues front and center--so what did the Kerry campaign do, but take those issues back off the table by spending so much time reminding everyone of his service thirty years ago. On this, the Bush campaign operatives are right--this election should be about what the president will do over the next four years, not what they did thirty years ago (even though that phrase is designed to move the subject away from Bush's less-than-honorable evasion of service). By blowing the chance to say clearly what Kerry would do with the office, he lost his main chance to make clear what his answer to this question is.
The cause of this error is simple--it's the revenge of Lee Atwater. Republican operatives like Atwater were so successful in convincing voters to at least suspect that Democrats were, to not put too fine a point on it--weird. They didn't share the values of regular folks, despised the military, wanted to undermine widely shared moral values, etc. Ever since Democrats have bent over backwards to try to avoid this tag of "weirdness," and the Democratic convention in Boston was the reductio ad absurdum of this effort.
The problem with this is that by spending their time trying to avoid the "weirdness" tag from Republicans, Democrats lose the opportunity to: a) reverse the accusation and argue that it's the Republicans who are weird, out of touch, obsessed on causes inexplicable to the average American, etc. and; b) lay out their own agenda and get something like a mandate to legislate it once in office. Clinton, at his best, avoided this trap by reversing the weirdness accusation and turning it into reasonably progressive policy proposals (the best example of this was his original welfare reform plan, which would have been much more generous than what ended up passing, and which--as he admits in his memoir--he could have passed in something like its original form, if he hadn't blown it by going for health care. The problem with Kerry's attempt to challenge the Republican weirdness accusation is that he can't use the attempt to "look tough" to serve any reasonable Democratic policy agenda. It's pure defense, no offense.
This trap was also caused by the effort to "stay positive," which was really a way to try to prevent the Republicans from going negative. This was stupid, since a challenger by definition needs to make the case for removing the incumbent from office. That is, the challenger needs to go negative (and there's also a good argument that voters get more useful information through negative ads than through positive ones). But in order to prevent the Republicans from going negative on him (which they did anyways) Kerry put himself in a box in which it is very hard for him to go negative on the president, without being called a hypocrite.
It's time for Democrats to recognize that, with the waning of the crime, Cold War and welfare issues (which were fair game--Dems were, in fact, on the wrong side of these), the weirdness charge lacks punch. Until they shrug off the ghost of Lee Atwater, Democrats will continue to run ineffective campaigns, and, what is more, those that they win will ineffectively segue into governing.