The Washington Post features a page 1 story by its staunchest anti-Bush Democrat, Dana Milbank, that proclaims “From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity.” The article (co-written by Jim VanderHei) claims not only that Bush’s campaign ads are unprecedented in their negativity, but also that they are exceptionally dishonest and contain more untruths than Kerry’s ads. The source cited in support of the last claim is Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania.
The best response to the Post’s first claim, that President Bush is running lots of negative ads, comes from Professor Jamieson herself (although that response is certainly not contained in the Post’s story). Jamieson has said in the past that attack ads are a legitimate and important form of campaign discourse. See, for example, this PBS interview. Now it is true that she made these comments in the course of praising attack ads by President Clinton against Bob Dole, but her position is self-evidently true. Any vote in a two-way race is equally a vote for one candidate and against the other. Thus, in theory, the ideal mix of campaign ads is 50 percent “positive” (presenting the reasons to vote for one candidate) and 50 percent “negative” (presenting the reasons for not voting for the other). As Jamieson suggests, however, the reality is that negative ads tend to be more valuable than positive ones. Positive ads are usually puff pieces that range from the misleading (Dukakis’ Massachusetts miracle or Kerry’s band of Vietnam brothers) to the absurd (Dukakis riding in an army tank). Negative ads usually focus on specific issues, relying on the votes or pronouncements of the candidate under attack. And, as Jamieson noted, attack ads (and certainly Republican attack ads) now receive a high level of media scrutiny, which tends to keep them relatively honest. Jamieson has argued that when the media criticizes a candidate merely for going negative, it is “discouraging something voters actually need in order to make informed judgments.” I would argue that this is what Milbank and the Post intend to accomplish.
But what of the Post’s charge (important, if true) that Bush’s ads are not only negative but also exceptionally dishonest, or at least misleading? The Post’s article is sub-titled “scholars say campaign is making history with often-misleading attacks.” But the only scholars cited who address the issue of whether the Bush ads contain history-making levels of misleading information are Jamieson and Stanford professor Shanto Iyengar. If one reads far enough, one finds Iyengar saying that Bush’s ads are no more distorted than those that have appeared since “the beginning of time.” Even Jamieson does not say that Bush’s ads are more misleading than the norm. Rather, she claims that Bush has made more misleading statements than Kerry. She cites two reasons. First, Bush has leveled many more specific charges than Kerry has. Second, Kerry supposedly learned from the troubles caused by Gore’s misstatements. Thus, even if one makes the leap of faith required to assume that Jamieson is a fair arbiter of what is honest, it seems that one need only go back as far as the year 2000 to find precedent for Bush’s alleged level of dishonesty. But I suspect that one would look back to 2000 in vain for a front-page Washington Post article about Gore’s dishonesty.
The real source of the view that Bush is making history with misleading attacks is not “scholars” but Milbank himself. And he tries to back it up with a few examples. But nearly all of them turn out to be dubious. For example, Milbank considers it “a torrent of deception” for the Bush campaign to have said that “Kerry would raise taxes by at least $900 billion.” Milbank notes that Kerry “has said no such thing; the number was developed by the Bush campaign’s calculations of Kerry’s proposals.” But that is only misleading if the calculations are improper, and Milbank does not assert, much less show, that they are. Similarly, the Bush campaign is taken to task for claiming that Kerry “has questioned whether the war on terror is really a war at all.” Milbank sniffs that “Kerry did not question the war on terrorism.” I don’t know what specific statement by Kerry (if any) the Bush campaign was referring to, but Kerry apparently has said that the threat of terrorism is exaggerated. Thus, without getting into metaphysical questions (e.g. what constitutes questioning what constitutes a war), it seems clear that Kerry has questioned the urgency of the fight against terrorism, which is the essence of the Bush campaign’s charge.
The final word on this matter should go to Jamieson, again from her Clinton-defending days. Then, she said “it’s important to know that Dole and Clinton differ on the minimum wage, that Dole and Clinton differ on family medical leave. Those are important distinctions. You learn about those distinctions in the Clinton ads.” To the charge that Clinton was distorting Dole’s views when his campaign said that Dole had opposed Medicare, Jamieson responded that you would expect Dole to correct the misleading inference that he didn’t care about the health of the elderly in his own ads. I would argue that, today, it is important to know that Bush and Kerry differ on taxes and how to fight terrorism. And if Kerry wants the public to know that he thinks the war on terrorism is a war, albeit one of exaggerated importance, let is him say so in his own ads, rather than relying on Jamieson, Milbank and the Washington Post
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