The Washington Post’s Jim VandeHei, teaming in this report with Dana Milbank [Correction: In the original post, I incorrectly identified the co-writer as Dana Priest, another Post writer and of another gender], presents a truly objective account of the Bush ad campaign without being slave to what New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently called “the tyranny of evenhandedness.”
In a story headlined “From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity,” the reporters described “a typical week in the life of the Bush reelection machine,” recounting several charges leveled by Vice President Dick Cheney, several broadcast and cable TV ads and campaign HQ memos to reporters. Then, in the sixth paragraph, they write:
The charges were all tough, serious — and wrong, or at least highly misleading.
…Scholars and political strategists say the ferocious Bush assault on Kerry this spring has been extraordinary, both for the volume of attacks and for the liberties the president and his campaign have taken with the facts. Though stretching the truth is hardly new in a political campaign, they say the volume of negative charges is unprecedented — both in speeches and in advertising.
Three-quarters of the ads aired by Bush’s campaign have been attacks on Kerry. 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. The figures were compiled by The Washington Post using data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group of the top 100 U.S. markets. Both campaigns said the figures are accurate.
…Bush has outdone Kerry in the number of untruths, in part because Bush has leveled so many specific charges (and Kerry has such a lengthy voting record), but also because Kerry has learned from the troubles caused by Al Gore’s misstatements in 2000. “The balance of misleading claims tips to Bush,” Jamieson said, “in part because the Kerry team has been more careful.”
The journalists report on some of the distortions emanating from the Kerry campaign, but as the figures cited above suggest, they are less frequent. Moreover, when the Bush operatives are challenged, they simply ignore reporters.
One constant theme of the Bush campaign is that Kerry is “playing politics” with Iraq, terrorism and national security. Earlier this month, Bush-Cheney Chairman Marc Racicot told reporters in a conference call that Kerry suggested in a speech that 150,000 U.S. troops are “universally responsible” for the misdeeds of a few soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison — a statement the candidate never made. In that one call, Racicot made at least three variations of this claim and the campaign cut off a reporter who challenged him on it.
VandeHei and Milbank describe charges that they say are rooted in truth but bent nearly 180 degrees.
On March 30, the Bush team released an ad noting that Kerry “supported a 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax” and saying, “If Kerry’s tax increase were law, the average family would pay $657 more a year.” But Kerry opposes an increase in the gasoline tax. The ad is based on a 10-year-old newspaper quotation of Kerry but implies that the proposal is current.
Other Bush claims, though misleading, are rooted in facts. For example, Cheney’s claim in almost every speech that Kerry “has voted some 350 times for higher taxes” includes any vote in which Kerry voted to leave taxes unchanged or supported a smaller tax cut than some favored.
…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.
The reporters also document cases where quotes used in Bush’s campaign ads are “from editorials, sometimes from opinion pages hostile toward Kerry, such as that of the Wall Street Journal.”
It is doubtful that this report on the front page above the fold of one of the nation’s leading newspapers will change the Bush strategy. With the advertising and PR strategies of the Bush campaign, it’s hard to draw any conclusion other than our political discourse has deteriorated to the point where politicians will unabashedly lie, knowing that the truth – or humiliation in the press – cannot reverse the impressions such lies make.
If Special Counsel for the Army Joseph N. Welch, were he instead of directing his question to Sen. Joe McCarthy more than 50 years ago, be asking of the Bush ad campaign, “Have you know sense of decency,” it’s doubtful we would remember it as a seminal moment in political history.