From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity
Scholars Say Campaign Is Making History With Often-Misleading Attacks
By Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 31, 2004; Page A01
It was a typical week in the life of the Bush reelection machine.
Last Monday in Little Rock, Vice President Cheney said Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry "has questioned whether the war on terror is really a war at all" and said the senator from Massachusetts "promised to repeal most of the Bush tax cuts within his first 100 days in office."
On Tuesday, President Bush's campaign began airing an ad saying Kerry would scrap wiretaps that are needed to hunt terrorists.
The same day, the Bush campaign charged in a memo sent to reporters and through surrogates that Kerry wants to raise the gasoline tax by 50 cents.
On Wednesday and Thursday, as Kerry campaigned in Seattle, he was greeted by another Bush ad alleging that Kerry now opposes education changes that he supported in 2001.
The charges were all tough, serious -- and wrong, or at least highly misleading. Kerry did not question the war on terrorism, has proposed repealing tax cuts only for those earning more than $200,000, supports wiretaps, has not endorsed a 50-cent gasoline tax increase in 10 years, and continues to support the education changes, albeit with modifications.
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.
The assault on Kerry is multi-tiered: It involves television ads, news releases, Web sites and e-mail, and statements by Bush spokesmen and surrogates -- all coordinated to drive home the message that Kerry has equivocated and "flip-flopped" on Iraq, support for the military, taxes, education and other matters.
"There is more attack now on the Bush side against Kerry than you've historically had in the general-election period against either candidate," said University of Pennsylvania professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an authority on political communication. "This is a very high level of attack, particularly for an incumbent."
Brown University professor Darrell West, author of a book on political advertising, said Bush's level of negative advertising is already higher than the levels reached in the 2000, 1996 and 1992 campaigns. And because campaigns typically become more negative as the election nears, "I'm anticipating it's going to be the most negative campaign ever," eclipsing 1988, West said. "If you compare the early stage of campaigns, virtually none of the early ads were negative, even in '88."
In terms of the magnitude of the distortions, those who study political discourse say Bush's are no worse than those that have been done since, as Stanford University professor Shanto Iyengar put it, "the beginning of time."
Kerry, too, has made his own misleading statements and exaggerations. For example, he said in a speech last week about Iraq: "They have gone it alone when they should have assembled a whole team." That is not true. There are about 25,000 allied troops from several nations, particularly Britain, in Iraq. Likewise, Kerry said several times last week that Bush has spent $80 million on negative and misleading ads -- a significant overstatement. Kerry also suggested several times last week that Bush opposed increasing spending on several homeland defense programs; in fact, Bush has proposed big increases in homeland security but opposed some Democratic attempts to increase spending even more in some areas. Kerry's rhetoric at rallies is also often much harsher and more personal than Bush's.
But 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."
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