In a campaign season of nonstop unsavory revelations—of witchcraft and love children and Civil Rights Act doubting—Richard Blumenthal’s Vietnam debacle was relatively subtle. The 64-year-old attorney general of Connecticut had a solid twenty-year record of public service and stellar approval ratings that was leading him to the Senate in Connecticut—until he got caught saying that “we” came back from the war instead of “they,” and that he served “in” Vietnam instead of “during” Vietnam.
This wasn’t some brazen masquerade—it was something more Freudian. Maureen Dowd said Blumenthal was dealing with residual guilt about not being on the front lines; others said he was unconsciously sad he missed out on some primal male test. Whatever he’d been thinking, Blumenthal, who had never shied away from attention before, seemed so shaken by the scandal that something profound changed inside him. He spent the summer hanging back and running the quietest of campaigns, while his lead withered from 40 points to within the margin of error. Maybe he was afraid of what else he might say that could work against him. Maybe he was trying to keep rogue elements of his personality in check. What’s certain is that having been outed as a noncombatant, Blumenthal assumed an almost pathological defensive crouch.
Yes, there were reasons for Blumenthal’s descent that were beyond his control—the economy, anti-Obama sentiment, and, most of all, his opponent, Linda McMahon. While the fire-breathing Republican professional-wrestling magnate made Blumenthal’s manufacture of flagrantly fake combat duty the foundation of her candidacy, Blumenthal seemed hapless—not only a pacifist, but a wimp. Last week, at a campaign stop in Waterbury, when a reporter asked Blumenthal why the campaign had been so quiet lately, he leaned forward and whispered, “I’m a fighter!” in a voice so tiny that the reporter had to ask him to repeat it. The running question he fielded all day long was why his campaign was so timid.
In the candidates’ first debate, the stereotypical gender roles seemed almost to have flipped. McMahon was bold and boisterous. When she attacked Blumenthal, she practically snarled. “I’ve had the opportunity because of the American dream,” she said. “He’s been on the government payroll all his life.” When she asked Blumenthal how a job is created, meanwhile, what resulted was a minute and a half of hemming and hawing that made for a fine YouTube moment for the McMahon campaign: “A job is created—and it can be in a variety of ways—and by a variety of people …”
It wasn’t until the final debate last week that Blumenthal seemed to stir. He pushed hard on the WWE’s marketing of sex and violence to kids, the company’s indifference to sick and injured workers, and McMahon’s refusal to speak out against steroid use. Now it was McMahon who was flailing. “It’s insulting to the millions of people who watch WWE every week ... to suggest that somehow it is less than quality entertainment,” she said. She tried bringing up Blumenthal’s “credibility issue” again (“[Voters] know that you had a hard time telling the truth about Vietnam”), but this time Blumenthal was ready to counterpunch. “I must say I will not be lectured on straight talk from a woman who has failed to be straight to the people of Connecticut on the issue of minimum wage, Social Security, and Medicare.” Now his latest polling numbers have him back in the double digits. McMahon has a lot of money left to spend. But it looks like Dick Blumenthal might have begun fighting just in time.