Bush and Kerry need to focus on debate, not feelings

Posted: Mar 12, 2004 12:00 AM

I'm trying to gird my loins - how does one do that by the way? - for the campaign everyone says will get "even nastier" between now and November. Indeed, eight months is a long time to listen to a conversation between George W. Bush, who isn't a great talker, and John Kerry, who isn't either but thinks he is.

But so far, I don't think the campaign has been nasty at all. I think it's been silly - and promises to get even sillier.

Take this unending backlash against Bush's 9/11 ads. On its merits, it's an astonishingly silly controversy. But why, all of a sudden, should merits get in the way? This story was destined to launch because Bush made it clear two years ago that he was going to run on 9/11. Why are we shocked that the Democrats were ready for it?

The story is also perfect for the press, not so much because it hurts Bush - that's gravy - but because it allows the networks to wallow in 9/11 sentimentality for the 800 gajillionth time. Besides it's good ratings. Why else would so many news shows promote their various crossfire debates on the Bush "ad controversy" by showing footage from 9/11? Apparently, it's OK to "exploit" the memory of lost Americans for ratings but not to run for president.

As you've probably heard by now, this story was driven primarily from two quarters: Harold Schaitberger (don't say that fast), the head of the Kerry-supporting firefighters' union, and a group of relatives of 9/11 victims, most of whom are members of a very dovish group called September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

Now I have no principled objection to the families of 9/11 victims using their status to express their opinions. What offends me is the idea that these families have some kind of veto power over what others can say about 9/11. Their status gives them a megaphone, and that's fine. But their status doesn't automatically make them right anymore than Kerry's status as a Vietnam vet makes him right on national security issues.

If George W. Bush didn't use the events of 9/11 - including their pictures - he would probably be the first U.S. president to abdicate such an issue. Lincoln ran for re-election entirely on his war leadership. FDR invoked Pearl Harbor constantly to his opponents' detriment. Kennedy ran on the "missile gap." Eisenhower exploited Normandy. And John Kerry, according to many, won the early primaries by exploiting Vietnam. Should we trot out families of vets with hurt feelings about that?

Of course, if Bush's ads were in really poor taste, that would be different. But no reasonable person looking at these saccharine, content-less ads can really say they're beyond the pale.

Both sides need to cowboy up. After spending months watching Democrats calling President Bush a liar and a fraud, the Kerry campaign is suddenly shrieking about President Bush's "smear machine," "gutter politics" and his alleged questioning of Kerry's patriotism. Meanwhile, George Bush needs to worry less about seeming like a compassionate conservative and more about how he can land a good shot or two on Kerry.

In fact, for more than a decade, Republicans and Democrats alike have been incessantly bellyaching about how mean the other side is. In 1992 Bob Dole, a WWII hero for Pete's sake, whined about how poppa Bush "lied" about his record. And in 1996 he complained again about how mean Steve Forbes was to him.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have been grousing about unfair "negative attacks" at the drop of a hat. Gore was the best at this. He'd call his debate opponents craven lickspittles of the cancer industry who only know how to go negative. Then, when his opponent said, "That's not true," Gore would moan, "See! He called me a liar! Another negative attack!"

It's all such nonsense (though successful nonsense for Kerry so far). By any historical measure, Bush hasn't gone negative at all yet. And all but the most vicious anti-Bush rhetoric from the Democrats isn't that big a deal by historical standards. In 1828 Andrew Jackson's wife was smeared as a bigamist, his mother a hooker and he a murderer. Meanwhile Jackson's people put out the word that John Quincy Adams was a pimp for the czar of Russia. Now that's going negative!

The fact is campaigns have been progressively nicer for centuries. I don't know if that's good or bad, though I suspect bad. Regardless, democracy is about arguments, not feelings. So let's have some good arguments before we start complaining about how mean the campaign has gotten. We've got time.