• U.S.

An Overdose of Invective

5 minute read
Joe Klein

I have no data to support this, no focus groups or instant polls, just a gut sense: George W. Bush hurt himself when he slagged John Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal in the third presidential debate last week. “You know, there’s a mainstream in American politics, and you sit right on the far left bank,” he scolded. “As a matter of fact, your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative Senator from Massachusetts.” The President chuckled–heh, heh–indicating that he thought this was clever,

but he was greeted by total silence from the audience (which later laughed at a more spontaneous and self-deprecating Bush joke about his family) and from a stone-faced moderator, Bob Schieffer, who said, “Mr. President, let’s get back to economic issues.”

Bush’s epithet slinging was a flop in all three debates. Not because the nation has taken a lurch to the left–Kennedy remains the anachronistic embodiment of a welfare-state liberalism long discarded by the American public. No, it was more likely that the President had overdosed on invective during the long, long course of this election year and the public has become inured to it. Kerry helped that process along by his demeanor throughout (with the exception of his gratuitous mention of the Vice President’s gay daughter). The Senator’s dignity and consistency made Bush’s attacks appear mingy, inaccurate and unpresidential.

There has been a fair amount of high-minded hand wringing about the negativity of the Bush campaign this year. There are ground rules that govern the slinging of mud in politics, and the President has tested their limits. But the Bush campaign’s transgressions have more often been misdemeanors rather than felonies, involving style and volume more than substance. The President has spent more than $100 million in negative advertising against Kerry, and almost all of it has been within the bounds of standard political practice. Some has been quite brilliant: the “flip-flop” assault inflated Kerry’s most annoying trait–his nuance-addled hedging of political bets–into a defining character flaw. That was fair, as was the dreadful broadside of ads taking isolated Kerry votes–98 times, allegedly, for higher taxes–and telescoping them into an ideological pattern. Negative advertising is like humor. Selective exaggeration is standard, but the exaggeration must have a basis in reality. Kerry is more likely than Bush to raise taxes and increase the role of government. The Bush ads tiptoed the line that separates hyperbole from fabrication. Even Dick Cheney’s rancid assertion that the U.S. would be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks if Kerry were elected had its roots in a real policy difference–the Vice President’s belief that Kerry’s multilateralism would lead to appeasement and thus strengthen the terrorists.

To be sure, there is a bright line between tough and scurrilous. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth crossed it, and the Bush campaign joined them when presidential surrogates, including Bush the Elder, ratified the Swifties’ lies. (They can’t all be liars, the former President told Don Imus.) Zell Miller’s frontal attacks on Kerry’s patriotism at the Republican Convention also crossed the line–as did the President’s celebration of Miller’s speech in subsequent stump appearances. Indeed, Bush’s gleeful willingness to personally join in the mudslinging is unprecedented in modern U.S. politics. Usually Presidents leave the dirty work to others. Even Richard Nixon, an apotheosis of darkness, had Spiro Agnew do most of the heavy lifting. This year Kerry delegated the dirt to groups like MoveOn.org (whose ads, like the Bush campaign’s, were tawdry but not unethical)–and that left the Senator’s candidacy seeming a bit more pristine than the President’s.

But even if the President has mostly honored the ground rules of political derogation, that doesn’t mean that he has run an honorable campaign. Indeed, he and Cheney have been more truthful in their negative attacks on Kerry than they have been about the positive presentation of their own record. I can’t remember another such campaign. All politicians gloss their deficiencies, but not since Nixon’s “secret” plan to end the Vietnam War has there been so blatant an effort to mislead the public about the central issue in an election. There were the obvious whoppers in the debates, pounced upon by the press. Cheney did indeed frequently–and wrongly–posit a link between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks. Bush did indeed say he was “not that concerned about” and didn’t “spend that much time on” Osama bin Laden. But those were only symptoms of the sapping wound at the heart of the Bush presidency: the insistence that the war against Saddam Hussein was a necessity, not a choice, the insistence that the occupation was going well, that grievous blunders have not been made.

Kerry’s recognition of that wound–his belated assault on Bush’s war policy–changed the dynamic of the race. In the debates, the President’s unwillingness to admit error seemed far more debilitating, theatrically, than Kerry’s liberalism or flip-flops. It strangled not only Bush’s natural grace but also his ability to go credibly on the offensive. In the end, the President appeared to be describing his own predicament rather than his opponent’s with the pitiful refrain: You can run, but you can’t hide.

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