Politics & Policy

An Attack On Bush Backfires

A criticism of Bush's "negativity" gets it positively wrong.

Bush campaign officials say a front-page Washington Post story which claimed that the president’s “ferocious assault” of negative campaigning has been “extraordinary, both for the volume of attacks and for the liberties the president and his campaign have taken with the facts,” was itself inaccurate. The article, which appeared Monday, was headlined “From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity; Scholars Say Campaign Is Making History With Often-Misleading Attacks.” According to one campaign official, the story was “literally, point-by-point, factually wrong.”

That is, perhaps, an overstatement; some issues discussed in the article could plausibly be argued from the perspective of both the Bush and the Kerry campaigns. But it appears that Bush officials are correct, and the Post wrong, on at least three major points.

The first concerns a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney, delivered in Arkansas on May 24. “Vice President Cheney said Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry ‘has questioned whether the war on terror is really a war at all,’” Post reporters Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei wrote. Cheney’s charge, along with others made by the Bush campaign was, the authors said, “tough, serious–and wrong, or at least highly misleading.”

“Kerry did not question the war on terrorism,” Milbank and VandeHei explained, suggesting that Cheney’s statement was not only untrue but also part of a Bush administration effort to deflect attention from its own record. The article explained:

The strategy was in full operation last week, beginning Monday in Arkansas. “Senator Kerry,” Cheney said, “has questioned whether the war on terror is really a war at all. He said, quote, ‘I don’t want to use that terminology.’ In his view, opposing terrorism is far less of a military operation and more of a law enforcement operation.”

But Kerry did not say what Cheney attributes to him. The quote Cheney used came from a March interview with the New York Times, in which Kerry used the phrase “war on terror.” When he said “I don’t want to use that terminology,” he was discussing the “economic transformation” of the Middle East–not the war on terrorism.

But that account appears to be incorrect itself; contrary to what Milbank and VandeHei claimed, Kerry did indeed say what Cheney said he said. Kerry’s interview with the Times is available on the paper’s website, and in the portion in question, he said the following:

The final victory in the war on terror depends on a victory in the war of ideas, much more than the war on the battlefield. And the war–not the war, I don’t want to use that terminology. The engagement of economies, the economic transformation, the transformation to modernity of a whole bunch of countries that have been avoiding the future. And that future’s coming at us like it or not, in the context of terror, and in the context of failed states, and dysfunctional economies, and all that goes with that.

In a second area, Bush officials say the Post understated the number of negative ads that have been run by the Kerry campaign. Citing information provided by the Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), which tracks such ads, Milbank and VandeHei wrote that “Bush so far has aired 49,050 negative ads in the top 100 markets, or 75 percent of his advertising. Kerry has run 13,336 negative ads–or 27 percent of his total.”

In fact, Bush officials say, the total number of Kerry negative ads is significantly higher than the Post reported. The paper counted the number of negative ads each side has run since March 4, which was when Bush began his ad campaign. But Kerry’s ad campaign was up and running long before that. Citing CMAG figures, the Bush campaign says Kerry ran 15,327 negative ads in the six months before March 4. In all, the Bush campaign says, Kerry has run 28,663 negative ads–still less than the Bush campaign, but more than twice as many as the Post reported.

In addition, Bush campaign officials strongly disagree with the Post’s decision not to include anti-Bush ads run by so-called “527″ groups which have spent tens of millions of dollars toward Kerry’s election. Again citing CMAG figures, the Bush campaign says that since the summer of 2003, those groups have aired negative ads targeting Bush 66,087 times (47,791 of those have aired since March 4). If those anti-Bush ads are combined with Kerry’s total, then Bush has been the target of more negative ads than Kerry. (There have been comparatively few third-party ads run against Kerry by pro-Bush groups.)

A third area in which the Post authors said the Bush campaign has made charges that are tough, serious, and wrong, deals with Kerry’s position on the Patriot Act. The paper reported:

On Tuesday, the Bush campaign held a conference call to discuss its new ad, which charged that Kerry was “pressured by fellow liberals” to oppose wiretaps, subpoena powers and surveillance in the USA Patriot Act. “Kerry would now repeal the Patriot Act’s use of these tools against terrorists,” the ad said.

Kerry has proposed modifying those provisions by mandating tougher judicial controls over wiretaps and subpoenas, but not repealing them. In the conference call, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman was prodded to offer evidence that Kerry was pressured by liberals or that Kerry opposed wiretaps. He offered no direct evidence, saying only that Kerry objected to the Patriot Act after liberals did, and that “a common-sense reading indicates he intends to repeal those important tools.”

Yesterday, the Bush campaign pointed to a series of Kerry statements, from the senator’s vote in favor of the Patriot Act, to his advocacy of greater surveillance measures against suspected terrorists, to his later criticisms of the Act, to his statement last December that, “It is time to end the era of John Ashcroft. That starts with replacing the Patriot Act with a new law that protects our people and our liberties at the same time.” Taken together, the statements tended to support the Bush ad’s conclusion.

In addition, the campaign also released a transcript of the conference call cited by the Post, in which Mehlman fielded questions about the Patriot Act ad:

Question: Ken, on their conference call this morning, Eric Holder and Admiral Crowe, based on this ad, accused the Bush-Cheney Campaign of playing politics with this issue, and said the ad “distorts the Senator’s position that what he’s calling for is a thoughtful reexamination of the Act.” What’s your response to their allegation?

Mehlman: Well, my response is twofold. First of all, talking about your principal position on an issue is not the same as having no principles on the issues and changing your position for political gain. But what our ad points out is, in Senator Kerry’s own words, the following: On Hardball, and this is in our materials, 9/24/01, he stated: “It’s absolutely outdated to have a wiretap linked only to a telephone number in a modern age where you throw one away and use another 10 minutes later. So I think it’s absolutely legitimate to track the wiretap to a specific individual.” Then, later on his website said, critically: “The Justice Department can use roving wiretaps without adequate checks or safeguards. This roving wiretap authority threatens personal privacy.” So our ad is pointing out the change in John Kerry’s position as reflected in his own words about a critical tool in the war in terror. An ad talking about an issue is not the same as changing your position for political gain, which is what our reflects.

Question: Ken, the language of the ad says, talking about wiretaps, subpoena powers and surveillances, “Kerry would now repeal the Patriot Act’s use of these tools against terrorists.” But what it says on Kerry’s website, and some of which you cited in your own email, is that he would require more evidence, he would set a higher bar, various checks and balances. Is that the same as repeal the use of these tools?

Answer: I would also call your attention, in addition to his website, and it’s in our “Ad Fact Background,” his speech on 12/01/03 at the Iowa State University, where he said: “So it is time to end the era of John Ashcroft. That starts with replacing the Patriot Act.” And has in other occasions also, and it’s reflected in our materials, spoken this way. So he has said we need to replace the Patriot Act, and his website has called for these provisions being problematic which, taken together, indicate–I think a common sense reading indicate that in fact he intends to repeal these important tools.

Says one Bush campaign official: “I don’t understand why the Washington Post views it as unreasonable that John Kerry’s quote saying he wants to replace the Patriot Act be interpreted by this campaign as saying he wants to replace the Patriot Act. Would any reasonable person in that room who listened to that speech walk out with any other conclusion than John Kerry wanted to replace the Patriot Act?” The official further says that it is reasonable to argue that if Kerry wants to replace the Act, then he wants to repeal the present law.

Finally, beyond questions about the accuracy of the Post’s examination of Bush’s negative ads, it is not entirely clear whether the authors are suggesting that negative ads are an inherently bad thing in a presidential campaign. While it seems that the article’s premise is that negative ads are, well, a negative force–Kerry is the target of a “ferocious Bush assault” and the “volume of negative charges is unprecedented”–in the past, one of the Post’s authors has expressed a significantly different view of negative ads.

In April 2000, Milbank wrote an article for the paper’s Sunday opinion section entitled, “Is Negativity Good for Politics? Positively.” In it, Milbank argued that presidential campaigns were not becoming more negative than in the past, and, “Even if they were, there’s new evidence that negativity doesn’t necessarily hurt turnout or increase cynicism, as the righteous good-government types have claimed. There’s reason to believe that tough, negative campaigning helps strengthen our leaders, boost creativity in policymaking and bring reform to government.”

The problem with contemporary politics, Milbank wrote, “is not negative campaigning but an increasingly puritanical press that often makes no distinction between negative comparisons (which are common and useful) and gratuitous personal attacks (which are harmful but rare). The result is that journalists are the ones poisoning public opinion and injecting cynicism into the electorate, by making people think politics is much uglier than it is.” One particularly “nefarious” development in politics, he continued, “is the role journalists have assumed as the negativity police.”

Milbank added that reporters “should police outright falsehoods, of course.” But otherwise, the press should let the candidates fight it out. Left unsaid was who would police the police.

Byron York is a former White House correspondent for National Review.

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