Negative or Just Critical?
By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; 1:39 PM
Were the Democrats overtly negative last night?
That, of course, depends on whom you ask. Perhaps you have some opinions on the matter, which we can chat about during my online discussion from the convention floor at 10 p.m. tonight. Certainly some Republican critics will maintain that is the case and will no doubt use evidence like the " Clinton Assails Bush as Democrats Open Convention" headline on the lead story in the New York Times to bolster their argument.
True enough, Bill Clinton did take it to President Bush last night. And in his speech earlier in the evening, former vice president Al Gore went at least 10 minutes or so before he even mentioned Sen. John F. Kerry by name.
Those who literally interpreted Kerry’s proclamation of a positive convention were probably living in a dream world. Conventions are not about happy talk. Never have been and probably never will be. But journalists sometimes get lazy and use the terms "negative attack" and "criticism" interchangeably.
The Democrats crept to the negative ledge last night, but didn't jump over in terms of their rhetoric. It certainly wasn't all positive, but even the negative stayed in the realm of criticism, rather than blatant political attacks and name-calling.
What's the difference? If, for instance, the Bush campaign says Kerry’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthy would wreak havoc on the economic recovery, that's a criticism and perfectly within the bounds of propriety in the political world. If the Bush campaign questions Kerry’s patriotism for voting no on legislation to fund the troops in Iraq, that is attack politics.
So if Bill Clinton accuses President Bush of squandering the nation’s moral authority and post-9/11 international goodwill by attacking Iraq before the weapons inspectors finished their job and by unilaterally withdrawing the United States from various international treaties, is that an attack or a criticism? How about if he accuses the president of running up the national deficit or imperiling the fiscal health of the nation by offering massive tax cuts benefiting mostly the rich at a time when the nation's needs are so great?
All seem within the bounds of legitimate criticism. Monday night’s speakers didn’t go on ad nauseam that Bush was a draft dodger—although that may have been implied in more than one speech—and several speakers did take up the issue at a Veterans for Kerry event in Boston earlier yesterday. That might be correctly considered a negative attack.
Or how about Jimmy Carter’s comments that Bush’s failure to make himself available for military service in Vietnam has contributed to his poor decision-making as a president: “I served under two presidents, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, men who represented different political parties," said Carter, a former Navy submarine officer. "Both of whom had faced their active military responsibilities with honor. They knew the horrors of war, and later, as commanders-in-chief, they exercised restraint and judgment and had a clear sense of mission. We had confidence that our leaders, military and civilian, would not put our soldiers and sailors in harm's way by initiating ‘wars of choice’ unless America's vital interests were endangered."?
People will argue over the merit of Carter's opinion. Certainly there are many people who consider this bunk. I’m expressing no opinion on Carter's opinion. It's certainly his right to express it.
But did Carter go over the line with the next sentence: "We also were sure that these presidents would not mislead us when it came to issues involving our nation's security."?
He seems on shakier ground here, because there is no proof—although there may be plenty of evidence -- that the president intentionally misled the nation about Iraq.
In any case, the bottom line for Democrats this week is that, from a strategic standpoint, they have to do more than talk about how fabulous they think John Kerry is. The base is demanding tough talk about this administration’s stewardship.
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