Election Year Double Standard Time

My, we are off to an elegant start here, aren't we?

First, we have John Kerry in a classic open-mike gaffe referring to his Republican opponents as "crooked" and "lying." While this was not a high point in the history of political rhetoric, Kerry's refusal to apologize for the overheard remark promptly solidified his base.

"Hey, he's got more guts than I thought," said many a pleased Democrat, convinced the Bushies are all liars and crooks. So, he is now free to go forth and talk of health care.

Naturally, the Republicans postured in comically pretend outrage and demanded an apology. The indictment brought back happy memories of the Bush open-mike gaffe in 2000, in which he called a reporter "an asshole" and then refused to apologize. But we are now on Election Year Double Standard Time, a time zone in which your side lies constantly and my side is noble, true and brave -- except for those moments when the other side's despicable conduct forces our side to get tough, too.

On the Republican side, we are already seeing the first negative ads from the Bushies, and they are indeed misleading attacks on Kerry's credentials on defense and the military. Of the numerous misrepresentations in the ads, I find particularly annoying the claim that Kerry voted to cut combat pay for soldiers. In fact, as the public record abundantly proves, it was the Bush administration that proposed to cut combat pay for soldiers in both Afghanistan and Iraq by $75 a month for imminent danger pay and by another $150 for family separation allowance. The administration backed down because of public outcry.

But we should expect negative ads to be misleading: The question in politics is always: "Are they working?" Apparently. Kerry has fired back by somberly deploring negative ads -- that could become a helpful theme, but it's rarely an exciting strategy, unless you do an ad saying, "Liar, liar, pants on fire," which somehow doesn't seem dignified enough. Besides, Ben Cohen of Vermont is already toting a large statue of Bush with his pants on fire around the country. (see www.PantsOnFire.net)

Then we had the incident of Kerry saying more leaders (abroad) are rooting for his election and the hilarious reaction by Bushies pretending to be outraged and demanding that he name names. Now that was splendid political farce, and no one who failed to appreciate it just is going to have a good time this year.

It is so obvious foreign leaders favor anyone over Bush, it's painful. A year ago, I quoted Fareed Zakaria's observation in Newsweek: "I've been all over the world in the last year, and almost every country I've visited felt humiliated by this administration." Jorge Casteneda, the former foreign minister of Mexico, told him: "Most officials in Latin countries today are not anti-American types. We have studied in the United States or worked there. We like and understand America. But we find it extremely irritating to be treated with utter contempt." The only foreign leader I can think of who would prefer Bush to Kerry is Ariel Sharon, to whom Bush has been perfectly compliant.

The problem is that George W. Bush has truly bad manners. At the recent Summit of the Americas summit in Mexico, he could not have possibly been more visibly bored. The bullying that led up to the Iraq War -- particularly ugly in the case of Turkey, which will come back to haunt us -- made him unpopular all over the world.

But there were the Bushies, haughtily demanding that Kerry back up his statement as though it were not painfully obvious to every dimwit in the nation. And that, in turn, led to the unfortunate demand from President Bush that Kerry ought to back up what he said with facts. Ooops.

Dick Cheney piped right up as though he had any credibility left, and Bush's press guy Scott McClellan capped it off by saying, "Either he is straightforward and states who they are, or the only conclusion one can draw is that he is making it up to attack the president."

This, of course, brought up the entire litany of lies, deceptions and misleading by the administration, leading to many a happy reprise from the left. California Rep. Henry Waxman's office helpfully located 237 whoppers on Iraq alone from major Bush players: That's www.house.gov/reform/min, in case anyone needs a handy reference.

On the other hand, nice opportunity for Karl Rove to play to American xenophobia -- fear of foreigners. In fact, there's a nice little sleeper issue developing on the right: a big anti-immigration stink, partly set off by Bush's own green card plan, which is the reason he backed down off that. Nothing like an election year to remind us how complicated this country is.

So far, I still think the most striking thing about this election is how united the Democrats are. I've never seen anything like it. On the other hand, as E.J. Dionne notes in his new book, Stand Up Fight Back," it's not enough to fight hard. You have to fight smart.

Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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