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."
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.
On Tuesday, the Bush campaign held a conference call to discuss its new ad, which charged that Kerry was "pressured by fellow liberals" to oppose wiretaps, subpoena powers and surveillance in the USA Patriot Act. "Kerry would now repeal the Patriot Act's use of these tools against terrorists," the ad said.
Kerry has proposed modifying those provisions by mandating tougher judicial controls over wiretaps and subpoenas, but not repealing them. In the conference call, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman was prodded to offer evidence that Kerry was pressured by liberals or that Kerry opposed wiretaps. He offered no direct evidence, saying only that Kerry objected to the Patriot Act after liberals did, and that "a common-sense reading indicates he intends to repeal those important tools."
Meanwhile, Kerry was greeted in Oregon and Washington state with television ads paid for by the Bush campaign that underscore what ad analysts call the negativity and misleading nature of many of the Bush TV spots. One titled "Doublespeak" pulls quotes from several major newspapers to argue that Kerry has waffled on major issues and has often said one thing and done another. The quotes, however, are often from editorials, sometimes from opinion pages hostile toward Kerry, such as that of the Wall Street Journal.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, as Kerry talked about rising gasoline prices, the Bush campaign recycled its charge that Kerry supports raising the gasoline tax by 50 cents per gallon. This was done in a memo to reporters and through Bush surrogates such as Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.). The Bush-Cheney Web site also features a "Kerry Gas Tax Calculator," allowing users to learn "How much more would he cost you?"
In Thursday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Tracey Schmitt, regional spokeswoman for Bush-Cheney '04, echoed the point: "John Kerry helped block the bill in the Senate and is now inserting himself into the debate in a blatant display of political opportunism. Senator Kerry supported higher gas taxes at least 11 times, including a 50-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax," Schmitt said.
On Thursday, after Kerry delivered a major foreign policy address, the Bush campaign dispatched Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to make this statement to the Green Bay Press-Gazette in his home state: "John Kerry has a history of making proposals and casting votes that would decrease America's safety." Kerry was campaigning in Green Bay on Thursday and Friday.
It is true Kerry has voted numerous times to eliminate weapons systems and opposed the 1991 Iraq war. But Cheney voted against many of those same weapons systems, and Kerry has voted for several defense increases, especially in recent years.
At Bush campaign headquarters on Thursday, Mehlman held a conference call with Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and George Allen (R-Va.) to level similar charges. "For John Kerry, the war in Iraq and the overall war on terror are a political game of Twister," Mehlman said.
Mehlman also drew reporters' attention to a new feature on the Bush Web site, allowing visitors to "Track Kerry's Shifting Positions on Iraq." That feature joined a Web log that points out negative coverage of Kerry, a feature called "John Kerry: The Raw Deal," "The Kerry Line," "Kerry Flip Flop of the Day," and "Journeys with John," a Kerry itinerary allowing people to see why "John Kerry is wrong for your state."
On Wednesday, a Bush memo charged that Kerry "led the fight against creating the Department of Homeland Security." While Kerry did vote against the Bush version multiple times, it is not true that he led the fight, but rather was one of several Democrats who held out for different labor agreements as part of its creation. Left unsaid is that, in the final vote, Kerry supported the department -- which Bush initially opposed.
Staff writer Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.