High School Politics 101
September 29, 2004
It's been said that President George W. Bush treats the public like 10-year-olds. Yet the Democrats are considered condescending and elitist? Nevertheless, the president's dumb-it-down and ignore-the-facts approach seems to be working. Corn says the Kerry campaign—in contrast—is waiting for the public and the media to "grow up": a tactic that might just be Kerry's undoing.
David Corn writes the Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).
I am haunted by a conversation I had the night of the Super Tuesday primary contest. John Kerry had just sealed the deal; he would be the Democrats’ presidential nominee. And I was speaking with one of his most senior advisers. The general election, this consultant told me, would turn on how “mature” the media and the electorate would be.
I now know what he meant, and I want to scream, “Grow up.”
The Bush team has done a marvelous job of infantilizing the campaign. With Bush the Big Daddy you will be safe; with Kerry the Big Weenie, you are in peril. It’s that simple, and Bush and his lieutenants push simplicity as the ultimate virtue. They promote strength and steadfastness as the Olympian ideals—regardless of the ends to which these traits are applied—and deride thought, analysis and re-evaluation as evidence of impotence. They repeat untrue statements—Kerry has no plan for Iraq, Kerry wants to cut and run, Kerry flip-flops—the way a bully issues taunts. For them, this is a schoolyard election. Bush is virile, Kerry is weak. Case closed. But there’s more. Kerry is dangerous—so unable and unwilling to do what is necessary to defend this county that Al Qaeda is rooting for him.
Kerry, the Bushies claim, just ain’t man enough. Talking about Bush’s message for the upcoming debates, his communications director, Nicolle Devenish, said of Kerry, “Someone who blinks when things get hard is not the right person to win the war on terror. They are preaching retreat and defeat in the face of real challenges from an enemy bent on our destruction. I think that’s bad for the troops, it’s bad for allies, and it’s bad for our country.”
It is true that Kerry has displayed conflicted feelings about the war in Iraq and has, at times, expressed them inartfully. (If only he had voted against giving Bush that blank-check authority to launch an elective war.) But being conflicted about a war that has turned out to be far more problematic and far less justified than promised is not a bad thing. Yet Bush depicts his don’t-confuse-me-with-facts approach to foreign policy as an asset. This is a leader who—according to the White House—did not even bother to read the full 90-page National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (as flawed as it was) before ordering an invasion of that country. But he sure knows how to cheerlead and how to pose as steely and determined. He also knows that most Americans, according to the polls, believe the war in Iraq was a mistake. And he has managed to turn this to his advantage, arguing, in essence, that he is so committed to defending the United States he is even willing to invade another country in error and, then, stay the course to get the job done and prevail. How’s that for strength?
Kerry, if we believe the polls, is hanging in there, but the close poll numbers in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Washington, Minnesota and Maine are signs of trouble. And he is up against a candidate totally unencumbered by the truth. Bush and his lackeys have gotten away with murder—or, more accurately, character and policy assassination. In speeches and in ads, Bush claims Kerry’s health care plan is a government “takeover” of the medical system that would wrest control from patients and doctors. But this is utterly untrue. Kerry calls for tax credits for businesses that would allow them to purchase catastrophic health insurance for employees. But what cost does Bush pay for this fibbing? There was a small story on an inside page of The Washington Post reporting (in cool and measured tones) that Bush has mischaracterized Kerry’s proposal. Nothing on page one. The Swift Vets’ attack on Kerry, apparently, is more important than the president lying about an opponent’s position on a key concern for voters. In the meantime, Bush has scared more voters about Kerry.
When not fear-mongering, Bush and the Gang push the flip-flop button. Every day, Bush derides Kerry for having voted for one version of the $87 billion spending bill that funded U.S. military operations in Iraq but then voting against the final version. (The measure Kerry supported would have forced Bush to actually pay for the war by suspending tax cuts for the wealthy.) What’s the point—or punchline—for Bush? He tells his crowds that Kerry, when once asked about these two votes, noted that the subject was “complicated.” Well, Bush says, his audience already laughing, there’s nothing “complicated” about supporting the troops. Yep, who wants a French-speaking, finger-in-the-wind, “complicated” know-it-all in charge of the uncomplicated fight against anti-American terrorists? When I recently debated The National Review’s Rich Lowry, he made fun of Kerry for being a “war hero who speaks French.” But why is such a person more ridiculous than, say, a non-war hero who used family connections to dodge the draft and who mangles English with a slight drawl? This really is ninth-grade-level stuff.
Another Team Bush lie: Kerry, that effete, can’t-make-up-his-mind, 90-pound weakling, wants to retreat. And—as Coach said during gym class—nobody likes quitters, right? Now perhaps withdrawing from Iraq might be the wise policy move. But that is not Kerry’s position. For months, he has talked about his plan for Iraq. It entails internationalizing Bush’s mess and accelerating (that is, trying to accelerate) the pace of reconstruction and the training of Iraqi security forces. Kerry’s ideas may or may not work. It sort of will depend on how bad things get by next January. But it is false to say that Kerry has declared an intention to cut bait. In fact, he maintains that he wants to remain militarily engaged in Iraq in an effort to build an Iraq that is stable, not a threat to its neighbors, and not a haven for anti-American terrorists. Still, Bush mouthpieces and Bush-friendly pundits keep claiming Kerry has no plan and would have America turn tail. On her radio show this week, conservative commentator Linda Chavez assailed Kerry as a spineless fellow who would lead America to an ignominious retreat. And these talking points have been echoed throughout the media in the political equivalent of a classroom gossip campaign.
What’s not a lie is that Bush does offer an uncomplicated—if free-from-reality—view of the war in Iraq and the misnamed war on terrorism: We’re going to beat the bad guys; we’re heroic Americans bringing democracy to the repressed; we’re making progress in Iraq; we’re fighting a tough fight but it’s for liberty and freedom, we must—and we will—triumph. This is an upbeat, optimistic, feel-good message. Kerry is a downer, for the truth does hurt: The president screwed up; he’s made the nation less safe; he doesn’t know what he’s doing in Iraq; he’s lying to you; Iraq is a mess. It’s clear that a majority of the electorate shares Kerry’s opinion that Bush botched things in Iraq and that the United States overall is heading in the wrong direction. But will voters validate Kerry’s stance by choosing the campus egghead with a truthful-but-upsetting message over the BMOC who swaggers as he peddles bumper sticker-sized happy talk and false assurances?
What’s discouraging is that Bush and his lieutenants have been so successful in framing much of the election in juvenile terms. And the mainstream media has hardly been able to act as hallway monitor, let alone a school principal. In my darker moments, I’ve often said that human interaction doesn’t evolve all that much past high school. In this campaign, the Bush clique is doing all it can to prove this theory correct. But it is the rest of the kids—I mean, the voters—who will determine if the politics of derision, big lying, fear mongering, simplicity and immaturity will work.