Destructive Campaign Rhetoric: A Bipartisan Problem

Both John Kerry and George W. Bush need to be more careful about what they say regarding Iraq and terrorism.

"Kerry and his advisers have behaved disgracefully" in some recent public comments, writes William Kristol in the current issue of The Weekly Standard.

"The people running the government clearly regard keeping Mr. Bush in office as more important than maintaining a united front on the most important threat to the nation," The New York Times editorialized on September 25.

Both overstate. But both have a point. Although irresponsible attacks are as old as politics, and although the Republic endures them, that does not justify the Bush and Kerry camps' veering into rhetoric that is unnecessarily destructive to the national interest, national unity, and our relations with allies.

In fairness, whenever a challenger is running against an incumbent president's conduct of an ongoing war, both have a fine line to walk. Any criticism by the challenger, no matter how true, can plausibly be seen as hurting the war effort, at least in the short run. This unavoidable cost is outweighed (for believers in democracy) by faith in robust debate as the best way to correct errors and shape policy for the long run. But the challenger should take pains to minimize any damage, especially to our alliances abroad.

The incumbent should also tread carefully. It is natural for him to think that his challenger's attacks are bad for the war effort and that his own defeat could mean disaster. But it is anti-democratic and demagogic, and it deepens our ugly partisan divide, to imply that criticism is disloyal or unpatriotic.

The current outrage of some of the nation's largest news organs seems selective. They have exaggerated the irresponsibility of the Bush camp's rhetoric, as suggesting "that Kerry supports the terrorists," in the words of a Los Angeles Times editorial. At the same time, they have found little fault in irresponsible statements from the other side, such as the Kerry camp's dismissal of Ayad Allawi, Iraq's courageous interim prime minister, as an American puppet.

Examples:

Destructive Kerry camp rhetoric. Immediately after Bush's September 21 speech appealing to the United Nations for help in Iraq, Kerry said that the president had "failed to level with the world's leaders," comparing Bush's upbeat view of Iraq unfavorably with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's downbeat view. Worse, rather than making Bush's appeal for international help a bipartisan one, Kerry put all the blame on Bush for the refusal of the U.N., France, and Germany to pitch in. He also stopped conspicuously short of disagreeing when asked about Annan's earlier statement that it was "illegal" for the United States to invade Iraq without U.N. approval. "I don't know what the law, the legalities, are that [Annan was] referring to," Kerry said.

This from a man who voted to authorize Bush to invade Iraq without U.N. approval—an invasion that was no more "illegal" than President Clinton's bombing of Kosovo without U.N. approval. Kerry's remarks will not bolster our faltering hope of winning international help in time for the planned Iraqi election—or ever. And while it's certainly fair for Kerry to attack Bush's failure to level with the American people about the dire situation in Iraq, a would-be president should hesitate to align himself so directly with foreign critics.

Then, on September 23, Kerry dismissed Allawi's address to a joint meeting of Congress that day as putting his "best face on the [Bush] policy" and accused Allawi of "contradicting his own statement [of four days earlier that] terrorists are pouring into the country." (In fact, Allawi's statements were not contradictory.) Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry adviser, cracked to the Los Angeles Times: "You can almost see the hand underneath the shirt today, moving the lips."

Actually, what you can almost see is America's foreign enemies gleefully quoting the Kerry campaign as proof that Allawi—an Iraqi patriot and exiled leader who barely survived an ax attack (apparently by Saddam's assassins) in 1978 and who has faced four more assassination attempts since June—is an American puppet.

Then came the assertion by Kerry's sister, Diana, who heads Americans Overseas for Kerry, that the Iraq invasion had been in "wanton disregard for international law," and that Australia's participation in the war had increased the terrorist threat to Australians. This came during the run-up to an October 9 election in which Australian Prime Minister John Howard, one of our staunchest allies, faces a Labor Party leader, Mark Latham, who has vowed to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq. Diana Kerry's statements (in an interview in the September 18 Weekend Australian) were a variation on John Kerry's insulting dismissal (in a March 8 speech in Iowa) of America's allies in Iraq as a "coalition of the bribed, the coerced, the bought, and the extorted."

It would be one thing for Kerry to insult our allies if his announced policy were to pull out as fast as possible, leaving the Iraqis to their fate. But Kerry has never disavowed his statement in March that "having gone to war, we have ... a huge responsibility now to ... achieve a peaceful and stable Iraq." His main departure from current Bush policy is his vow to bring in new allies to "share the burden." (France and Germany vow to do no such thing.) And his rhetoric seems far more likely to drive away old allies than to attract new ones.

Destructive Bush camp rhetoric. Vice President Cheney crossed the line on September 23 by saying, "John Kerry is trying to tear down all the good that has been accomplished, and his words are destructive to our effort in Iraq and in the global war on terror." Some of Kerry's words have indeed been destructive, as discussed above. But the first part of Cheney's statement seems to smear Kerry's motives.

Cheney has also been copiously and rightly criticized for suggesting on September 7 that a Kerry victory would mean more terrorist attacks: "If we make the wrong choice [by electing Kerry], then the danger is that we'll get hit again, that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating ... and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind-set ... that we are not really at war." (Cheney later said he had meant only that Kerry would be less effective than Bush would be in responding to future attacks.)

The Bush statement that has drawn the most journalistic dudgeon lately seems closer to the line. "You can embolden an enemy by sending mixed messages. You can dispirit the Iraqi people by sending mixed messages," he said on September 23. Bush aimed these comments most directly at Kerry's "chang[ing] positions." But he came uncomfortably close to implying that any attack on his Iraq policy gives aid and comfort to the enemy.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told Fox News on September 21 that Democrats are "consistently saying things that I think undermine our young men and women who are serving over there." That comes too close to accusing Democrats of intentionally putting American lives at risk, when it is Bush who—justifiably or otherwise—has sent more than 1,000 Americans to their deaths in Iraq. Hatch also claimed that terrorists "are going to throw everything they can between now and the election to try and elect Kerry." That may or may not be true, but it flirts with the implication that Kerry is making common cause with terrorists.

Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman criticized the Kerry-Lockhart disparagement of Allawi by telling reporters on September 28: "That echoes what the enemy is saying [and] what a lot of terrorists have said." True. But Mehlman comes too close to accusing Kerry of deliberately parroting terrorist rhetoric.

Still, I take with a grain of salt the complaints of Kerry backers who (as a Washington Post editorial notes) "can call President Bush a liar, accuse Vice President Cheney of corruption, and hint that the administration is secretly hiding Osama bin Laden to be produced in an October surprise, and still maintain with a straight face that they may lose because they don't know how to be as vicious as Karl Rove."

Some of the Bush camp's rhetoric that greatly offends some people does not much offend me. Take House Speaker Dennis Hastert's response when asked on September 18 whether he believed that Al Qaeda would be more successful under a Kerry presidency: "That's my opinion, yes." The New York Times thought that was "despicable."

But all Hastert seemed to be saying was that Kerry's policies would be less effective than Bush's. If that's beyond the pale, what about Ted Kennedy's September 27 claim that Bush's war in Iraq "has made the mushroom cloud [over an American city] more likely"? I ask this as one who fears that Kennedy may well be right.