OPENING ARGUMENT - Destructive Campaign Rhetoric: A Bipartisan Problem

Oct. 2, 2004, 8 a.m.

“Kerry and his ad­visers have be­haved dis­grace­fully” in some re­cent pub­lic com­ments, writes Wil­li­am Kris­tol in the cur­rent is­sue of The Weekly Stand­ard.

“The people run­ning the gov­ern­ment clearly re­gard keep­ing Mr. Bush in of­fice as more im­port­ant than main­tain­ing a united front on the most im­port­ant threat to the na­tion,” The New York Times ed­it­or­i­al­ized on Septem­ber 25.

Both over­state. But both have a point. Al­though ir­re­spons­ible at­tacks are as old as polit­ics, and al­though the Re­pub­lic en­dures them, that does not jus­ti­fy the Bush and Kerry camps’ veer­ing in­to rhet­or­ic that is un­ne­ces­sar­ily de­struct­ive to the na­tion­al in­terest, na­tion­al unity, and our re­la­tions with al­lies.

In fair­ness, whenev­er a chal­lenger is run­ning against an in­cum­bent pres­id­ent’s con­duct of an on­go­ing war, both have a fine line to walk. Any cri­ti­cism by the chal­lenger, no mat­ter how true, can plaus­ibly be seen as hurt­ing the war ef­fort, at least in the short run. This un­avoid­able cost is out­weighed (for be­liev­ers in demo­cracy) by faith in ro­bust de­bate as the best way to cor­rect er­rors and shape policy for the long run. But the chal­lenger should take pains to min­im­ize any dam­age, es­pe­cially to our al­li­ances abroad.

The in­cum­bent should also tread care­fully. It is nat­ur­al for him to think that his chal­lenger’s at­tacks are bad for the war ef­fort and that his own de­feat could mean dis­aster. But it is anti-demo­crat­ic and dem­agogic, and it deep­ens our ugly par­tis­an di­vide, to im­ply that cri­ti­cism is dis­loy­al or un­pat­ri­ot­ic.

The cur­rent out­rage of some of the na­tion’s largest news or­gans seems se­lect­ive. They have ex­ag­ger­ated the ir­re­spons­ib­il­ity of the Bush camp’s rhet­or­ic, as sug­gest­ing “that Kerry sup­ports the ter­ror­ists,” in the words of a Los Angeles Times ed­it­or­i­al. At the same time, they have found little fault in ir­re­spons­ible state­ments from the oth­er side, such as the Kerry camp’s dis­missal of Ay­ad Allawi, Ir­aq’s cour­ageous in­ter­im prime min­is­ter, as an Amer­ic­an pup­pet.


De­struct­ive Kerry camp rhet­or­ic. Im­me­di­ately after Bush’s Septem­ber 21 speech ap­peal­ing to the United Na­tions for help in Ir­aq, Kerry said that the pres­id­ent had “failed to level with the world’s lead­ers,” com­par­ing Bush’s up­beat view of Ir­aq un­fa­vor­ably with United Na­tions Sec­ret­ary-Gen­er­al Kofi An­nan’s down­beat view. Worse, rather than mak­ing Bush’s ap­peal for in­ter­na­tion­al help a bi­par­tis­an one, Kerry put all the blame on Bush for the re­fus­al of the U.N., France, and Ger­many to pitch in. He also stopped con­spicu­ously short of dis­agree­ing when asked about An­nan’s earli­er state­ment that it was “il­leg­al” for the United States to in­vade Ir­aq without U.N. ap­prov­al. “I don’t know what the law, the leg­al­it­ies, are that [An­nan was] re­fer­ring to,” Kerry said.

This from a man who voted to au­thor­ize Bush to in­vade Ir­aq without U.N. ap­prov­al — an in­va­sion that was no more “il­leg­al” than Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s bomb­ing of Kosovo without U.N. ap­prov­al. Kerry’s re­marks will not bol­ster our fal­ter­ing hope of win­ning in­ter­na­tion­al help in time for the planned Ir­aqi elec­tion — or ever. And while it’s cer­tainly fair for Kerry to at­tack Bush’s fail­ure to level with the Amer­ic­an people about the dire situ­ation in Ir­aq, a would-be pres­id­ent should hes­it­ate to align him­self so dir­ectly with for­eign crit­ics.

Then, on Septem­ber 23, Kerry dis­missed Allawi’s ad­dress to a joint meet­ing of Con­gress that day as put­ting his “best face on the [Bush] policy” and ac­cused Allawi of “con­tra­dict­ing his own state­ment [of four days earli­er that] ter­ror­ists are pour­ing in­to the coun­try.” (In fact, Allawi’s state­ments were not con­tra­dict­ory.) Joe Lock­hart, a seni­or Kerry ad­viser, cracked to the Los Angeles Times: “You can al­most see the hand un­der­neath the shirt today, mov­ing the lips.”

Ac­tu­ally, what you can al­most see is Amer­ica’s for­eign en­emies glee­fully quot­ing the Kerry cam­paign as proof that Allawi — an Ir­aqi pat­ri­ot and ex­iled lead­er who barely sur­vived an ax at­tack (ap­par­ently by Sad­dam’s as­sas­sins) in 1978 and who has faced four more as­sas­sin­a­tion at­tempts since June — is an Amer­ic­an pup­pet.

Then came the as­ser­tion by Kerry’s sis­ter, Di­ana, who heads Amer­ic­ans Over­seas for Kerry, that the Ir­aq in­va­sion had been in “wan­ton dis­reg­ard for in­ter­na­tion­al law,” and that Aus­tralia’s par­ti­cip­a­tion in the war had in­creased the ter­ror­ist threat to Aus­trali­ans. This came dur­ing the run-up to an Oc­to­ber 9 elec­tion in which Aus­trali­an Prime Min­is­ter John Howard, one of our staunchest al­lies, faces a Labor Party lead­er, Mark Lath­am, who has vowed to with­draw Aus­trali­an troops from Ir­aq. Di­ana Kerry’s state­ments (in an in­ter­view in the Septem­ber 18 Week­end Aus­trali­an) were a vari­ation on John Kerry’s in­sult­ing dis­missal (in a March 8 speech in Iowa) of Amer­ica’s al­lies in Ir­aq as a “co­ali­tion of the bribed, the co­erced, the bought, and the ex­tor­ted.”

It would be one thing for Kerry to in­sult our al­lies if his an­nounced policy were to pull out as fast as pos­sible, leav­ing the Ir­aqis to their fate. But Kerry has nev­er dis­avowed his state­ment in March that “hav­ing gone to war, we have … a huge re­spons­ib­il­ity now to … achieve a peace­ful and stable Ir­aq.” His main de­par­ture from cur­rent Bush policy is his vow to bring in new al­lies to “share the bur­den.” (France and Ger­many vow to do no such thing.) And his rhet­or­ic seems far more likely to drive away old al­lies than to at­tract new ones.

De­struct­ive Bush camp rhet­or­ic. Vice Pres­id­ent Cheney crossed the line on Septem­ber 23 by say­ing, “John Kerry is try­ing to tear down all the good that has been ac­com­plished, and his words are de­struct­ive to our ef­fort in Ir­aq and in the glob­al war on ter­ror.” Some of Kerry’s words have in­deed been de­struct­ive, as dis­cussed above. But the first part of Cheney’s state­ment seems to smear Kerry’s motives.

Cheney has also been co­pi­ously and rightly cri­ti­cized for sug­gest­ing on Septem­ber 7 that a Kerry vic­tory would mean more ter­ror­ist at­tacks: “If we make the wrong choice [by elect­ing Kerry], then the danger is that we’ll get hit again, that we’ll be hit in a way that will be dev­ast­at­ing … and that we’ll fall back in­to the pre-9/11 mind-set … that we are not really at war.” (Cheney later said he had meant only that Kerry would be less ef­fect­ive than Bush would be in re­spond­ing to fu­ture at­tacks.)

The Bush state­ment that has drawn the most journ­al­ist­ic dudgeon lately seems closer to the line. “You can em­bolden an en­emy by send­ing mixed mes­sages. You can dis­pir­it the Ir­aqi people by send­ing mixed mes­sages,” he said on Septem­ber 23. Bush aimed these com­ments most dir­ectly at Kerry’s “chang[ing] po­s­i­tions.” But he came un­com­fort­ably close to im­ply­ing that any at­tack on his Ir­aq policy gives aid and com­fort to the en­emy.

Sen. Or­rin Hatch, R-Utah, told Fox News on Septem­ber 21 that Demo­crats are “con­sist­ently say­ing things that I think un­der­mine our young men and wo­men who are serving over there.” That comes too close to ac­cus­ing Demo­crats of in­ten­tion­ally put­ting Amer­ic­an lives at risk, when it is Bush who — jus­ti­fi­ably or oth­er­wise — has sent more than 1,000 Amer­ic­ans to their deaths in Ir­aq. Hatch also claimed that ter­ror­ists “are go­ing to throw everything they can between now and the elec­tion to try and elect Kerry.” That may or may not be true, but it flirts with the im­plic­a­tion that Kerry is mak­ing com­mon cause with ter­ror­ists.

Bush cam­paign man­ager Ken Mehl­man cri­ti­cized the Kerry-Lock­hart dis­par­age­ment of Allawi by telling re­port­ers on Septem­ber 28: “That echoes what the en­emy is say­ing [and] what a lot of ter­ror­ists have said.” True. But Mehl­man comes too close to ac­cus­ing Kerry of de­lib­er­ately par­rot­ing ter­ror­ist rhet­or­ic.

Still, I take with a grain of salt the com­plaints of Kerry back­ers who (as a Wash­ing­ton Post ed­it­or­i­al notes) “can call Pres­id­ent Bush a li­ar, ac­cuse Vice Pres­id­ent Cheney of cor­rup­tion, and hint that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is secretly hid­ing Osama bin Laden to be pro­duced in an Oc­to­ber sur­prise, and still main­tain with a straight face that they may lose be­cause they don’t know how to be as vi­cious as Karl Rove.”

Some of the Bush camp’s rhet­or­ic that greatly of­fends some people does not much of­fend me. Take House Speak­er Den­nis Hastert’s re­sponse when asked on Septem­ber 18 wheth­er he be­lieved that Al Qaeda would be more suc­cess­ful un­der a Kerry pres­id­ency: “That’s my opin­ion, yes.” The New York Times thought that was “despic­able.”

But all Hastert seemed to be say­ing was that Kerry’s policies would be less ef­fect­ive than Bush’s. If that’s bey­ond the pale, what about Ted Kennedy’s Septem­ber 27 claim that Bush’s war in Ir­aq “has made the mush­room cloud [over an Amer­ic­an city] more likely”? I ask this as one who fears that Kennedy may well be right.

What We're Following See More »
Trump Signs Border Deal
2 days ago

"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

Trump Declares National Emergency
2 days ago

"President Donald Trump on Friday declared a state of emergency on the southern border and immediately direct $8 billion to construct or repair as many as 234 miles of a border barrier. The move — which is sure to invite vigorous legal challenges from activists and government officials — comes after Trump failed to get the $5.7 billion he was seeking from lawmakers. Instead, Trump agreed to sign a deal that included just $1.375 for border security."

House Will Condemn Emergency Declaration
2 days ago

"House Democrats are gearing up to pass a joint resolution disapproving of President Trump’s emergency declaration to build his U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move that will force Senate Republicans to vote on a contentious issue that divides their party. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Thursday evening in an interview with The Washington Post that the House would take up the resolution in the coming days or weeks. The measure is expected to easily clear the Democratic-led House, and because it would be privileged, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be forced to put the resolution to a vote that he could lose."

Where Will the Emergency Money Come From?
2 days ago

"ABC News has learned the president plans to announce on Friday his intention to spend about $8 billion on the border wall with a mix of spending from Congressional appropriations approved Thursday night, executive action and an emergency declaration. A senior White House official familiar with the plan told ABC News that $1.375 billion would come from the spending bill Congress passed Thursday; $600 million would come from the Treasury Department's drug forfeiture fund; $2.5 billion would come from the Pentagon's drug interdiction program; and through an emergency declaration: $3.5 billion from the Pentagon's military construction budget."

House Passes Funding Deal
3 days ago

"The House passed a massive border and budget bill that would avert a shutdown and keep the government funded through the end of September. The Senate passed the measure earlier Thursday. The bill provides $1.375 billion for fences, far short of the $5.7 billion President Trump had demanded to fund steel walls. But the president says he will sign the legislation, and instead seek to fund his border wall by declaring a national emergency."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.