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.

Ex­amples:

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.

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