To Bash, or Not to Bash?

Election '04

The Kerryniks have decreed that this shall not be a week of overt W. slapping. In press conferences and interviews, Democratic honchos have said that criticizing Bush is not the aim of the convention. They want to use those valuable three hours of primetime coverage to boost John Kerry's positives. During the campaign Kerry freely slapped Bush about; calling Bush's foreign policy the most arrogant, inept and reckless in decades. Yet in campaign speeches on the road to the convention he has barely mentioned that guy he wants to trounce in November. And a chief Kerry strategist told me that "the Bush part of the story is already known. We don't have to talk much about it at this stage. We need to talk about John."

Before the official proceedings began on Monday, I wondered if it was wise for the Democrats to throttle back on the Bushwhacking. After all, I wrote a book entitled "The Lies of George W. Bush," and anti-Bushism has been the main fuel of the Democrats' efforts this year. Could it be that the Kerry campaign was spooked by Republicans and conservative pundits, who have tried to characterize vigorous criticism of Bush as irrational "Bush-hatred" and who have attempted to portray Kerry as a doom-and-gloom pessimist?

When Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe opened the convention on Monday evening, it did seem that the Dems were going to go easy on Bush. McAuliffe went vegetarian and stayed clear of red meat. He recited the usual Democratic litany about the Bush years: three million more Americans in poverty, four million more without health insurance, the largest budget deficit ever, the worst jobs-creation record in decades. But his conclusion was gentle: "We can do better." This was not the usual pitbull barking cable TV viewers have come to expect from the chairman.

Former Vice President Al Gore poked at Bush, but without the harshness and anger he has displayed in recent speeches. After reminding the delegates they had to make certain that every vote would be counted in the next election (not that such a reminder was necessary) and running through a series of self-deprecating jokes (he called America "a land of opportunity, where every little boy and girl has a chance to grow up and win the popular vote"), he did note "the way the [Iraq] war has been managed by the administration has gotten us into very serious trouble." And he criticized Bush for "confusing al Qaeda with Iraq." But in his menschy speech, there was no name-calling, no rough stuff. He left the stage without reprising the line he used at the 1992 convention (and which was swiped by Dick Cheney at the 2000 Republican convention): "It is time for them to go."

But then came Jimmy Carter and the Clintons, and it became evident that the Democratic strategy is not to eschew Bush-bashing. Instead, the Democrats are engaging in Bush-bashing without the Bush. That is, they are going after the deeds and the decisions, not the man.

Carter showed how this could be done. He never referred to Bush directly. But he remarked that Kerry "showed up when assigned to [military] duty." Nod, nod, wink, wink. Carter talked about the need for a president who "would not mislead us" and maintained that electing Kerry would "restore the judgment and maturity to our government that is sorely lacking today." He pushed this theme hard: "Truth is the foundation of our global leadership, but our credibility has been shattered and we are left increasingly isolated and vulnerable in a hostile world. Without truth – without trust – America cannot flourish." The crowd cheered when the former president declared, "A cowardly attack on innocent civilians brought us an unprecedented level of cooperation and understanding around the world. But in just 34 months, we have watched with deep concern as all this goodwill has been squandered by a virtually unbroken series of mistakes and miscalculations." Another crowd-pleaser was Carter's observation that "in the world at large we cannot lead if our leaders mislead." He never directly called Bush a liar. But he politely presented a rather sharp indictment of the unnamed president.

Then Hillary Clinton threw several brickbats at you-know-who. Praising John Kerry, she said, "He will lead the world, not alienate it. He will lower the deficit, not raise it. I know that he will create good jobs, not lose them. And he will solve a health care crisis, not ignore it." When she referred to the recently released report of the 9/11 commission, she noted that the 9/11 commission would not have existed had it not been for the persistence of the 9/11 families – which was a dig at Bush, who initially opposed the creation of the commission.

But leave it to Bill Clinton, the political master. In a home-run of a speech, he showed how the Democrats could engage in devastating Bush-bashing while smiling and not becoming disagreeable, shrill or discourteous. He remarked that Kerry and Bush were "two strong men who both love their country." But with wit and passion, he sliced Bush to bits. "We Democrats will bring the American people a positive campaign," Clinton said at the start of his speech, "arguing not who's good and who's bad, but what is the best way to build the safe, prosperous world our children deserve." He sharply contrasted his party with Bush's party:

"We think the role of government is to give people the tools and conditions to make the most of their lives. Republicans believe in an America run by the right people, their people, in a world in which we act unilaterally when we can, and cooperate when we have to."

"They think the role of government is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who embrace their political, economic, and social views, leaving ordinary citizens to fend for themselves on matters like health care and retirement security. Since most Americans are not that far to the right, they have to portray us Democrats as unacceptable, lacking in strength and values. In other words, they need a divided America. But Americans long to be united. After 9/11, we all wanted to be one nation, strong in the fight against terror. The president had a great opportunity to bring us together under his slogan of compassionate conservatism and to unite the world in common cause against terror."

"Instead, he and his congressional allies made a very different choice: to use the moment of unity to push America too far to the right and to walk away from our allies, not only in attacking Iraq before the weapons inspectors finished their jobs, but in withdrawing American support for the Climate Change Treaty, the International Court for war criminals, the ABM treaty, and even the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty."

Then Clinton let loose:

"For the first time ever when America was on a war footing, there were two huge tax cuts, nearly half of which went to the top one percent. I'm in that group now for the first time in my life....They protected my tax cuts while withholding promised funding for the Leave No Child Behind Act, leaving over two million children behind; cutting 140,000 unemployed workers out of job training, 100,000 working families out of child care assistance, 300,000 poor children out of after school programs; raising out of pocket healthcare costs to veterans, weakening or reversing important environmental advances for clean air and the preservation of our forests."

"Everyone had to sacrifice except the wealthiest Americans, who wanted to do their part but were asked only to expend the energy necessary to open the envelopes containing our tax cuts. If you agree with these choices, you should vote to return them to the White House and Congress. If not, take a look at John Kerry, John Edwards and the Democrats."

Like a jazz musician, Clinton pushed the riff further. If you agree with the White House decisions to cut police funding and not to push for extending the ban on assault weapons – "they're taking police off the streets and putting assault weapons back on the streets" – then vote for the Republicans. If you agree with the White House's opposition to a bill that would have diverted $1 billion in tax cuts for the rich to a program to boost security inspections of cargo at ports and airports, then vote for the Republicans. "If you think it's good policy to pay for my tax cut with the Social Security checks of working men and women, and borrowed money from China," Clinton said, "vote for them."

Clinton, who was assailed by the right for being a draft-dodger, did not call Bush the same. But he made the point: "During the Vietnam War, many young men – including the current president, the vice president and me – could have gone to Vietnam but didn't. John Kerry came from a privileged background and could have avoided it too. Instead he said, send me."

As he hailed Kerry, Clinton still zinged a certain somebody. "In a time of change," he observed, "[Kerry] has two other important qualities: his insatiable curiosity to understand the forces shaping our lives, and a willingness to hear the views even of those who disagree with him." Now what might Clinton be suggesting about that other fellow? Clinton never explicitly questioned Bush's abilities. But he did say, "Their opponents will tell you to be afraid of John Kerry and John Edwards, because they won't stand up to the terrorists – don't you believe it. Strength and wisdom are not conflicting values – they go hand in hand." That line drew shouts and applause.

After his speech, conservative and liberal commentators (at the parties I attended) concurred that it had been a bravura performance. Clinton was generous in his praise of Kerry and Edwards. But talking up a nominee is not hard for any experienced pol. More importantly, Clinton pummeled Bush in a most sophisticated and effective manner. One need not be a Clinton fan to acknowledge that he showed his party how best to engage in Bush-bashing. It may sound odd coming from me, but it is not necessary to call Bush a "liar" to make the point. Clinton, who was pounded by the right and who had his own problems with truth-telling, demonstrated to his comrades how it is far better for them to wield a stiletto than a sledgehammer when trying to cut up a political foe.

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