THERE'S A GREAT old New Yorker cartoon that shows a group of business types sitting around a conference table. "Honesty is the best policy," the caption reads. "OK, now what's the second best policy?" That attitude pretty much sums up the approach of both presidential campaigns as they head into the homestretch. Any campaign, and especially one this contested, is going to have its share of low blows, selective quotations and questionable claims. Still, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry seem locked in a race to the bottom for who can be most disingenuous.
For some time the Bush campaign was leading in that race with its fantastical description of Mr. Kerry's health plan as a big-government takeover, its out-of-context attempt to make Mr. Kerry look as if he views terrorism as a threat no more serious than prostitution, and its silly, inaccurate tallying of Mr. Kerry's supposed votes for higher taxes (Ninety-eight! No, 350!). But the Kerry team has begun to catch up, with a duet of scare-tactic assaults on Mr. Bush for allegedly being poised to reinstate the draft and having a post-election plan to cut Social Security benefits.
Mr. Kerry first raised the draft threat in an interview with the Des Moines Register last week. "With George Bush, the plan for Iraq is more of the same and the great potential of a draft," Mr. Kerry said. It's true, as Mr. Kerry said, that U.S. forces have been stretched to the limit by the hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it's also true, as he somehow neglected to say, the Mr. Bush has categorically ruled out a draft. It's fair to ask how the president plans to address the problem of overextended troops, particularly among the Guard and reserves, in a second term, without resorting to a draft. In playing the draft card, though, Mr. Kerry's comments took that reasonable point a step too far.
So, too, with Social Security, the Democrats' favorite campaign weapon. Mr. Kerry deployed it over the weekend, seizing on a New York Times Magazine story that quoted the president, apparently secondhand, as saying, "I'm going to come out strong after my swearing in, with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security." This Mr. Kerry turned into a "January surprise" that would threaten seniors' Social Security benefits. "That's up to $500 a month less for food, for clothing, for the occasional gift for a grandchild," Mr. Kerry told voters in Ohio. A new Kerry ad is similarly ominous. "The Real Bush Agenda?" it says. "Cutting Social Security."
Mr. Bush has a plan for Social Security, but it's not exactly a secret; he's talked about it in his nomination acceptance speech, in the debates and on the campaign trail. Mr. Bush has proposed allowing younger workers to divert a portion of payroll taxes to private accounts -- not the complete privatization that Mr. Kerry is trying to suggest the president has up his sleeve -- and he has pledged not to cut benefits for those already receiving checks or close to retirement age. There are reasonable questions about whether private accounts are too risky, and, even if they make sense, how Mr. Bush would pay the immense transition costs. It's too bad Mr. Kerry chooses to try to scare seniors rather than engage in that serious discussion.