Crying wolf

Posted: Feb 20, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- As the Democrats enter the final stages of their primary race, the emerging story is how the Republicans are preparing to go negative in the general election with a campaign of singular viciousness against John Kerry.

Kerry's spokespeople have already sounded the alarm, warning darkly that ``the right-wing smear machine'' is gearing up, and declaring amusingly that ``it's time for George W. Bush to call off his right-wing slime machine.''

When exactly was it called on? No matter. A CNN anchor dutifully picks up the theme, noting ``how ugly this is turning so early on.''

Republicans turning ugly?

You are an average citizen following the election campaign so far. What have you gleaned from the wall-to-wall cable news coverage of the candidates' debates, rallies and victory/concession speeches?

First, that President Bush has ``deceived'' (Al Sharpton), ``misled'' (John Kerry, Howard Dean), indeed, outright ``lied'' (Kucinich) us into a pointless and ruinous war that, as Kerry's chief campaign surrogate, Edward Kennedy, thunders, was ``made up in Texas'' for pure political advantage. Hence, Bush's hands are dripping with the blood of 500 brave soldiers who died for a lying president seeking better poll numbers.

Second, that his own personal military service was dishonorable: AWOL from the Air National Guard, declares Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe; perhaps even a ``deserter,'' the charge that Wesley Clark repeatedly refused to repudiate.

And these are just Bush's depredations abroad. At home, as John Edwards tells it at every campaign stop, there are little girls from the ``other America'' crying into the night because their dads, now with the blank stare of hopelessness on their faces, have lost their jobs. Why? So that ``Ken Lay and his boys'' (Dean) and other friends of this president could make obscene profits for their outsourcing ``Benedict Arnold companies'' (Kerry). And that's while Bush was at the same time despoiling the water, polluting the air and, by God, trying to kill the Arctic caribou to please his parasitic oil industry pals and to fatten up Halliburton.

Vote him out? Given all that, shouldn't the man be drawn and quartered? Rarely has there been a political assault more concentrated, more unrelenting, more unrebutted -- all occurring not as political advertising but on free media as campaign ``coverage.''

Part of this is serendipity. After Dean and Gephardt destroyed each other with mutually negative ads in Iowa, the other candidates became terrified of saying anything even mildly negative about their opponents. They directed all of their fire not inside the corral, as is usual in a primary battle, but outside -- at the president. As the intra-Democratic campaign turned kid gloves, the main competition among the candidates consisted of who could be more hyperbolic in delineating the crimes of George W. Bush.

Part of this, too, is the candidates' exploitation of media conventions. The cable channels all covered the Tuesday night victory/concession speeches, which the candidates invariably turned into opportunities to deliver their stump speeches to a national cable audience. Dean's Iowa scream is the counterexample that makes the case. The rule is: Forget the crowd, face the camera and denounce the president.

And now, after six weeks of carpet-bombing Bush, the Democrats are shocked -- shocked! -- that the Republicans might answer back with ``negativity.''

What, in fact, have the Republicans mustered? A single Internet ad about Kerry, the Senate's king of special interest money, denouncing special interests. And one speech by the Republican National Committee chairman on Kerry's conventional liberal (i.e. budget-cutting) positions on defense and intelligence.

The Republicans have yet to go after Kerry on his most critical vulnerability, his breathtaking penchant for reversing course for political convenience:

-- Votes against the Gulf War, which he now says he favored.

-- Votes for the Iraq war, which he now says he opposed.

-- Votes against the $87 billion for troop support and Iraqi reconstruction, while saying that he favors troop support and Iraqi reconstruction.

-- Votes for No Child Left Behind, which he now attacks incessantly.

-- Votes for NAFTA; now rails against the unfairness of free trade.

-- Votes for the Patriot Act; now decries the assault on civil liberties.

Which is why Kerry prefers to pre-empt any examination of his record by warning in advance of a coming Republican ``smear campaign.''

It would be a clever attempt at political insulation were it not so transparent. Instead, coming after weeks of unrelenting anti-Bush calumny, it is an impressive display of chutzpah. Kerry may or may not win the presidency, but he has already won the 2004 Captain Renault award.