Tuesday, October 12, 2004
This seems to be Beat Up On TNR Week. My apologies to Pete Beinart and Marty Peretz, both of whom I respect, but the latest pro-Kerry issue is just not terribly convincing.
Take a look, for example, at the cover story by Jonathan Chait, about how the GOP "invented" the charge of flip-flopping and applies it indiscriminately to all Democratic candidates.
The article really has two arguments. First, the GOP used to compete on issues, but when the Democrats neutralized several popular GOP issues by adopting the GOP line (specifically: becoming pro-death-penalty, pro-welfare-reform, and pro-middle-class-tax-cuts - that's the claim, anyhow) and the Cold War came to a close, the GOP no longer had any winning issues. So they switched to character attacks. Second, the GOP has focused on flip-flopping because it's an easy-to-digest character attack that the press loves (and, apparently, the press loves character attacks) and has figured out how to manipulate the press better than the Democrats do.
This is fascinating. Let's actually look at recent elections. In 1988, the GOP beat Mike Dukakis by calling him a liberal, liberal, liberal, tying him to Willie Horton and the ACLU and all that. This is supposedly what Democrats learned from when they nominated Bill Clinton, who called for ending welfare "as we know it" and who flew home to Arkansas to pull the switch on Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally handicapped convicted murderer. Chait would have us believe that the GOP thrashed Clinton for being a flip-flopper. But this was not primarily a GOP charge - it was a charge made by Clinton's primary opponents! Remember "pander-bear"? From Tom Harkin in the earliest days of the campaign to Paul Tsongas after his New Hampshire win to Jerry Brown in the campaign's waning days, the core charge by Clinton's primary opponents was that he would say anything to get elected. Who described Clinton as an "unusually good liar - unusually good"? Not Dan Quayle - Bob Kerrey.
Did the GOP pick up this line of attack in the general election? Of course they did. Just like they picked up Willie Horton from Al Gore, who inaugurated that attack against Dukakis. But let's not pretend that the charge that Clinton was especially adept at pandering was cooked up in some GOP idea-factory.
And character attacks go both ways. Did Clinton beat George H. W. Bush by calling hiim a right-wing extremist? Not primarily. He beat him primarily by portraying him as *out of touch* with ordinary people and hence *uncaring* about their economic distress. That's a character attack. It happens to be the standard character attack of Democrats against Republicans. It dovetails with the Democrats' economic message. But it isn't a policy argument; it's a character attack. They don't care. We do.
Of course, Clinton won. So you'd think the GOP would have learned that calling someone a flip-flopper and a liar was no substitute for substantive engagement. Guess what: they did. In 1994 they took control of both the House and the Senate by running a national, substantive campaign on the issues. They didn't win by saying Clinton was a liar and a flip-flopper. They won by saying that he was going to take away your guns, ration your health-care, that he'd raised your taxes and give your sons gay foxhole-mates. Fair or not, right or not, these are substantive attacks, not character attacks. And they won in a landslide.
Did Bob Dole run in 1996 primarily on the charge that Clinton is a flip-flopper? That would suggest that Dole actually ran a campaign on some coherent message, which certainly isn't how it seemed at the time. But Dole did run a campaign on character. The central message of that campaign wasn't: Clinton changes his positions. It was: Clinton is a lying, cheating, thieving, womanizing, snake-oil salesman who lets Hollywood freaks pay to jump up and down on Lincoln's bed. Plus he's a draft dodger and I, Dole, gave my arm for my country. That's why Dole was the "better man" - not because Clinton was a waffler and Dole a man of deep conviction and steely determination (Dole? the epitome of legislative process? the man who said, "I'll be another Reagan if that's what you want"?) but because Clinton was dishonorable and Dole honorable. Yep, that's a character attack. It's one that TNR promoted, by the way, because they thought it was true. They supported Clinton anyway, of course, because they agreed with him more than with Dole. So did the country. Funny how that works.
Then we come to Al Gore. Was Al Gore derided for changing his positions? Yes. But that wasn't the essence of the character attack on him either. Bush, after all, wasn't running in 2000 as Churchill. He was running as a "united not a divider" and a "reformer with results." He was running as someone who just wanted to solve problems, make government work better. Was there red meat in his campaign? Sure - on taxes, on missile defense, on the symbolism of faith. But there was at least as much emphasis on how Bush would be non-ideological and conciliatory, on how his agenda was just common sense.
Does that sound like a message designed to contrast with a flip-flopper? Nope. And, sure enough, the attack on Gore wasn't focused on how he bent with the political winds. It focused, rather, on three elements. First, Gore was called a liar. He was called a liar all the time. But Gore's lies were very different from Clinton's. Clinton's were ingratiating and manipulative, and the people ultimately forgave him these because, frankly, they figured he was lying *for* them and not just *to* them. (He may have been a snake-oil salesman, but we were shareholders in the snake-oil business, so we didn't complain.) Gore's lies were trivially self-serving and bespoke a man of profound insecurity. In Bush's own words, "he doesn't know who he is." That was the core charge against Gore: that he was a phony, to himself as much as to everyone else.
Second, Gore was attacked for corruption. This was a blatant attempt to tar Gore with Clinton's brush, and I suspect it was the weakest charge. But it stuck, largely because Gore *was* Clinton's VP, so there was no way for him entirely to avoid the Clinton taint. Gore thought this was all about sexual fidelity, and tried to counter by picking Lieberman as his VP and roto-rooting his wife's throat on TV, but sex was just a symptom and a symbol, and no matter how much Gore trumpeted that he loved his wife, that didn't really respond to the feeling that people had that Gore had laid down with a dog and woken up with fleas.
Third, Gore was attacked as - yup - a liberal. They didn't use that word so much, because it was passe. But the charge that Gore had liberal plans up his sleeve was an important part of the GOP attack. Guns figured heavily in the 2000 election; they probably cost Gore his home state. So did global warming, the International Criminal Court, etc. But Bush, cleverly, more frequently attacked him for being a reactionary liberal - that is, resisting reform because he was beholden to interest groups. That's how he attacked him on Social Security, education, and a host of other issues. Remember the GOP convention, how Bush mocked Gore for calling every Bush proposal a "risky scheme"? *That* was the core attack - not that Gore was a flip-flopper, but that he was against common-sense reform because Democratic interest groups objected.
The funny thing is that Gore promoted this image as a reactionary liberal and closet lefty. Gore is the one who adopted a no-concessions position on abortion. Gore is the one who attacked Bill Bradley for having second thoughts about affirmative action - and made his own VP recant his own second thoughts. Gore even attacked Bush at the third debate, demanding he clarify his position on affirmative action, which Gore pronounced himself to be in favor of without the slightest equivocation. And Gore's the one who bought Bob Shrum populism hook, line and sinker.
This, of course, was an image in considerable contrast to Gore's actual record, which was moderate to conservative as a Senator and as VP. Gore is the one who sided with Rubin in 1993, arguing for greater deficit reduction rather than more ambitious spending plans. Gore is the one who advised Clinton to sign the GOP welfare reform bill in 1996, which Marion Wright Edelman considered such a terrible betrayal. Gore is the one who advocated most forcefully that Clinton take a firmer hand both in Bosnia and in Kossovo. But Gore ran well to the left of his own record. Someone obviously told him he needed to. Why shouldn't the GOP have made hay out of that?
Again: did the GOP attack Gore as a flip-flopper, someone who shifted positions for advantage? Sure. They mocked him for his retroactive conversion on tobacco. They censured him for changing his position on abortion. They ridiculed him for constantly changing his plans for Social Security. All these were fair attacks. But they certainly weren't the essence of the GOP attack on Gore. As with Clinton, the character attacks on Gore were tailored to the genuine character flaws of the candidate, and were connected with genuine policy contrasts.
Gore was, of course, a singularly inept campaigner who never came up with a good line of attack against Bush (unlike Clinton, who crafted extremely intelligent character-based attacks on both of his opponents). But that certainly doesn't prove that the Democrats are incapable of mounting a character attack. They're doing a pretty good job of doing just that right now. They are attacking Bush for being out of touch, unwilling to admit mistakes, for lying and deceiving people and refusing to reveal bad news, for valuing ideological purity and loyalty over competence, etc. All of these are legitimate attacks, and all are character-based.
And what is Bush's main attack line against Kerry? Well, in this instance, the attack really is rooted in the attack that Kerry is a flip-flopper. That he has no core convictions, that he changes positions to suit the political winds, that he lacks political courage. That he can't stand up to Howard Dean, so how will he stand up to our country's enemies. This particular line of attack just so happens to resonate with Kerry's resume, in that (a) that resume is very thin (Kerry has never spent political capital to try to get a piece of legislation passed); (b) Kerry's line on Iraq is sufficiently incomprehensible that TNR's editors cannot make sense of it; (c) whenever Kerry has strayed into taking a position that Democratic interest groups object to - making noises about the failure of affirmative action, or about the need to modernize Social Security - he has beat a hasty and total retreat in the face of criticism. Politically, Kerry is the opposite of a profile in courage; he's an extraordinarily cautious politician who has avoided taking controversial positions. On top of that, he's not as good as Clinton was of telling people what they want to hear without apparently contradicting what he told some other group of people who disagree. On a number of issues - Israel and Cuba are probably the best examples - Kerry has told different groups stories that appear to flatly contradict one another. Can they be reconciled? Technically, they sometimes can; but that's not the point. The point is that Kerry has left both groups somewhat distrustful of his intentions rather than convincing both groups that he's fundamentally on their side, which is the trick Clinton used to pull off.
What's Kerry's defense against this character attack? He has two. The first is to say that he actually has a very consistent record, albeit a very liberal one. This is, needless to say, not the tack he wants to take, but it is implicitly part of the defense that Chait suggests. After all, the list of flip-flops isn't that long. It's certainly not as long or as damning as the list of positions that Kerry took at various points in his career - pro nuclear-freeze, anti-death-penalty, pro-abortion-funding, anti-welfare-reform, etc. - that the GOP has happily used to portray him as an out-of-the-mainstream Massachusetts liberal.
His other defense is that his own positions are more nuanced than the GOP makes them out to be. He doesn't change his position; he votes one way and then another because the details of one bill differ from those of another. This is a tough argument to make because of its subtlety, but that's not the only problem with it. It has two other, more fundamental problems. First, it frequently isn't true. Take the Patriot Act. Kerry claims he supported the bill and still does, but doesn't like the way Ashcroft is applying it. But this is nonsense. He gives essentially no examples of application that he objects to; what he objects to is the law itself. That suggests one of two things. Either Kerry voted for the law in the first place out of expediency rather than because he substantively agreed with it. Or he's posturing in his objections because he's playing to the Democratic base that never supported the law. In either case, he's opened himself entirely fairly to an attack on his lack of political convictions and courage.
The second, even deeper problem is that it elides the key question of when to sacrifice the perfect for the sake of the good. Let's take the $87 billion for Iraq, which is probably the most important item on the flip-flop list. Kerry claims that he supported the $87 billion, but would not vote for deficit financing. Sounds reasonable. But the vote he had to actually cast was not, "how will we finance this $87 billion" but "will we spend it". He voted no. That means, for him, that the question of financing was *more important* than the question of winning in Iraq. How can I say that? Because Joseph Biden, Senator from Delaware and a possible Secretary of State in a Kerry Administration, voted the other way. He *agreed* with Kerry that the $87 billion should be financed by cancelling tax cuts rather than growing the deficit. He voted for the alternative Democratic proposal just like Kerry did. But when that proposal lost, and the time came to vote on the only bill that actually might pass, Biden voted yes, and Kerry voted no.
Why does this matter? Can't we assume that Kerry in office would have spent the $87 billion and rolled back the tax cuts? Don't we know his policy preferences? Yes, we do - but we also know something about his policy priorities. Biden thought it was more important to take a clear position on Iraq than to take a clear position on taxes. Kerry thinks the opposite. If not, *why didn't he vote yes the way Biden did*? If we grant that the vote was pure symbolism, that Kerry knew the bill would pass, *what message was he trying to send* and how did it *differ* from the message Biden was sending?
Bush's attack line against Kerry on this point is entirely fair, and happens to be true. Kerry was posturing *against* the Iraq war in the primaries. That was the message. Kerry has *deliberately* tried to muddy the waters with respect to his Iraq position because he wants to be sure that he's on the right side of the issue come election day. And that's a pretty damning indictment of Kerry's character.
Does this mean I agree with the whole litany of Bush attacks on Kerry's character? No. I think the assertion that he would outsource American foreign policy to France is silly; things look very different from the Oval Office, and Kerry would quickly learn that France behaves like a rival more often than an ally. I think, for that matter, that Bush is wrong that Kerry lacks inner convictions. He clearly has certain convictions; he's averse to the use of force generally, for example. That's clear from a long record, and it is clear from the complicated dance he's tried to execute on Iraq. I think it's silly to assert that Kerry would abandon the fight against al Qaeda. No President is going to abandon that fight. It's less clear to me that Kerry will do anything to respond to the challenge from Iran, but then again, it's not clear to me what Bush's policy on that country is. (For that matter, it's not clear anymore to me what that policy should be - but you know, I'm not running for President.) I don't think Kerry is a traitor who hates America. I think he's a tempermentally cautious and procrastinating guy who will do absolutely nothing on anything until backed into a corner where he's forced to act.
But, as should be clear from the above, I think Bush's attacks on Kerry's character are responding to something real and important - just as I think Kerry's attacks on Bush's character are responding to something real and important.
Finally, let's look at the list of Bush flip-flops that Chait digs up to contrast with Kerry's. I'm going to ignore Bush prehistoric pro-choice position; if anyone asked him about it, I'm sure Bush would say quite simply that Jesus changed his heart and that led him to change his mind. McCain-Feingold is unquestionably an unprincipled flip-flop for which Bush has taken great heat from the conservative press. The rest of Chait's list consist of tactical decisions related to the war (the second UN vote, the creation of a Department of Homeland Security) or stonewalling the 9-11 Commission. I'm fascinated to know that Chait considers tactical reversals to be a sign of lack of principle, or that he considers Bush's opposition to a Department of Homeland Security to have been a matter of principle on which Bush should have gone down to the wire. Chait just isn't being serious here. As for the stonewalling: what exactly are we talking about here? What's the character flaw - that Bush caved or that Bush stonewalled in the first place? And again: what's the substantive principle at issue in this point?
There's a reason Chait came up with such a lame list of examples of Bush's flip-flopping. The reason is that (a) Bush's problem isn't flip-flopping, it's refusing to admit error and hence inability to correct it; (b) when Bush has accepted things he said he opposed, the instances look not like flip-flopping but like compromises. Bush wanted certain features in his education bill that he didn't get, but he signed the bill anyway. Ditto on tax cuts. Ditto on the farm bill. Ditto on Medicare. You can attack Bush for *compromising* too much on these bills, but that's very different from attacking him for *changing his position* in response to political pressure. (Again, McCain-Feingold is a clearly different case, where Bush reversed himself on a matter of principle without a plausible, non-political explanation, and the right-wing press has savaged him for it.) Sometimes, of course, Bush has been politically clever enough to coopt a popular idea hatched by the opposition - e.g., Homeland Security - and make it a winning issue of his own. This is almost the opposite of trying to embrace all sides of a controversial issue until it becomes clear who's on the winning side, which is what Kerry is charged - justly - with doing on Iraq.
There are real, substantive character charges to be made against President Bush. Kerry's making them. There are also real, substantive criticisms to be made with respect to the Iraq war. In different ways and from somewhat different directions, such criticisms are being made by a number of U.S. Senators, including Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel, John McCain, Ted Kennedy and Richard Lugar. Some of these folks supported the war from the beginning, some opposed it and some had a more nuanced view. Some think we need to fight harder to win and some think we need to find a decent way out. They all have an easier time attacking Bush's conduct of the war because there's some measure of consistency to how they have come to their views on the matter. They have responded to new information, and they may have changed their views as a result (Hagel certainly seems to have), but there is some logic to how they came to their views. That is not the case with Kerry, and that's his biggest difficulty in pressing the attack on Bush with respect to Iraq. And it's why Bush is rightly pressing on Kerry's character to deflect that attack.