From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity
Attacks Get Early Start
The attacks have started unusually early -- even considering the accelerated primary calendar -- in part because Bush was responding to a slew of attacks on his record during the Democratic primaries, in which the rivals criticized him more than one another. And because the Bush campaign has spent an unprecedented sum on advertising at this early stage of the campaign, "the average voter is getting a much more negative impression," said Ken Goldstein, who tracks political advertising at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
From the president and Cheney down to media aides stationed in every battleground state and volunteers who dress up like Flipper the flip-flopping dolphin at rallies, the Bush campaign relentlessly portrays Kerry as elitist, untrustworthy, liberal and a flip-flopper on major issues. This campaign is persistent and methodical, and it often revs up on Monday mornings with the strategically timed release of ads or damaging attacks on Kerry, including questioning medical and service records in Vietnam and his involvement in the peace movement afterward. Often, they knock Kerry off message and force him to deflect personal questions.
Sometimes the charges ring true. Last week, Kerry told NBC: "I'm for the Patriot Act, but I'm not for the Patriot Act the way they abuse the Constitution." That brought to mind Kerry's much-mocked contention in March on Iraq spending: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."
But often they distort Kerry's record and words to undermine the candidate or reinforce negative perceptions of him.
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.
In early March, Bush charged that Kerry had proposed a $1.5 billion cut in the intelligence budget that would "gut the intelligence services." Kerry did propose such a cut in 1995, but it amounted to about 1 percent of the overall intelligence budget and was smaller than the $3.8 billion cut the Republican-led Congress approved for the same program Kerry was targeting.
The campaign ads, which are most scrutinized, have produced a torrent of misstatements. On March 11, the Bush team released a spot saying that in his first 100 days in office Kerry would "raise taxes by at least $900 billion." Kerry has said no such thing; the number was developed by the Bush campaign's calculations of Kerry's proposals.
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.
Stretching the Truth
Incumbent presidents often prefer to run on their records in office, juxtaposing upbeat messages with negative shots at their opponents, as Bill Clinton did in 1996.
Scott Reed, who ran Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign that year, said the Bush campaign has little choice but to deliver a constant stream of such negative charges. With low poll numbers and a volatile situation in Iraq, Bush has more hope of tarnishing Kerry's image than promoting his own.
"The Bush campaign is faced with the hard, true fact that they have to keep their boot on his neck and define him on their terms," Reed said. That might risk alienating some moderate voters or depressing turnout, "but they don't have a choice," he said.
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.
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