Bush ads heavy on attack, light on fact, experts say
by Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei
WASHINGTON — It was a typical week in the life of the Bush re-election machine.
Last Monday in Little Rock, Ark., Vice President Dick Cheney said presumed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry “has questioned whether the war on terror is really a war at all” and said the senator from Massachusetts “promised to repeal most of the Bush tax cuts within his first 100 days in office.”
Tuesday, President Bush’s campaign began airing an ad saying Kerry would scrap wiretaps needed to hunt terrorists. The same day, the Bush campaign charged in a memo that Kerry wants to raise the gasoline tax by 50 cents.
Wednesday and Thursday, as Kerry campaigned in Seattle, he was greeted by another Bush ad claiming Kerry now opposes education changes he supported in 2001.
The charges were all tough, serious — and wrong, or at least highly misleading. Kerry did not question the war on terrorism, has proposed repealing tax cuts only for those earning more than $200,000, supports wiretaps, has not endorsed a 50-cent gasoline tax increase in 10 years and continues to support the education changes, albeit with modifications.
Unusual volume of attack ads
Scholars and political strategists say the ferocious Bush assault on Kerry this spring has been extraordinary, for the volume of attacks and for the liberties the president and his campaign have taken with the facts. Though stretching the truth is hardly new in a political campaign, they say the volume of negative charges is unprecedented, in speeches and in ads.
Three-quarters of the ads aired by Bush’s campaign have been attacks on Kerry. Bush so far has aired 49,050 negative ads in the top 100 markets, or 75 percent of his advertising. Kerry has run 13,336 negative ads, or 27 percent of his total. The figures were compiled by The Washington Post using data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group of the top 100 U.S. markets. Both campaigns said the figures are accurate.
The assault on Kerry is multitiered: It involves television ads, news releases, Web sites and e-mail and statements by Bush spokesmen and surrogates. All are coordinated to drive home the message that Kerry has equivocated and “flip-flopped” on Iraq, support for the military, taxes, education and other matters.
“There is more attack now on the Bush side against Kerry than you’ve historically had in the general-election period against either candidate,” said University of Pennsylvania professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an authority on political communication. “This is a very high level of attack, particularly for an incumbent.”
In terms of the magnitude of the distortions, those who study political discourse say Bush’s are no worse than those that have been done since, as Stanford University professor Shanto Iyengar put it, “the beginning of time.”
Kerry team ‘more careful’
Kerry, too, has made his own misleading statements and exaggerations. For example, he said in a speech last week about Iraq: “They have gone it alone when they should have assembled a whole team.” That is not true. There are about 25,000 allied troops from several nations, particularly Britain, in Iraq.
Likewise, Kerry said several times last week that Bush has spent $80 million on negative and misleading ads, a significant overstatement.
Kerry also suggested several times last week that Bush opposed increasing spending on several homeland-defense programs; in fact, Bush has proposed big increases in homeland security but opposed some Democratic attempts to increase spending even more in some areas. Kerry’s rhetoric at rallies is also often much harsher and more personal than Bush’s.
But Bush has outdone Kerry in the number of misleading claims, in part because Bush has leveled so many specific charges (and Kerry has such a lengthy voting record), but also because Kerry has learned from the troubles caused by Al Gore’s misstatements in 2000. “The balance of misleading claims tips to Bush,” Jamieson said, “in part because the Kerry team has been more careful.”
The attacks have started unusually early — even considering the accelerated primary calendar — in part because Bush was responding to a slew of attacks on his record during the Democratic primaries, in which the rivals criticized him more than one another. And because the Bush campaign has spent an unprecedented sum on advertising this early in the campaign, “the average voter is getting a much more negative impression,” said Ken Goldstein, who tracks political advertising at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
From the president and Cheney down to media aides stationed in every battleground state and volunteers who dress like Flipper the dolphin at rallies, the Bush campaign relentlessly portrays Kerry as elitist, untrustworthy, liberal and a flip-flopper on major issues. This campaign is persistent and methodical, and it often revs up on Monday mornings with the strategically timed release of ads or damaging attacks on Kerry, including questioning medical and service records in Vietnam. Often, they knock Kerry off message and force him to deflect personal questions.
Playing politics with words
Sometimes the charges ring true. Last week, Kerry told NBC: “I’m for the Patriot Act, but I’m not for the Patriot Act the way they abuse the Constitution.” That brought to mind Kerry’s much-mocked contention in March on Iraq spending: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
But often they distort Kerry’s record and words to undermine the candidate or reinforce negative perceptions of him. One constant theme of the Bush campaign is that Kerry is “playing politics” with Iraq, terrorism and national security. Earlier this month, Bush-Cheney Chairman Marc Racicot said in a conference call that Kerry suggested in a speech that 150,000 U.S. troops are “universally responsible” for the misdeeds of a few soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, a statement the candidate never made. In that one call, Racicot made at least three variations of this claim and the campaign cut off a reporter when he was challenged on it.
In early March, Bush charged that Kerry had proposed a $1.5 billion cut in the intelligence budget that would “gut the intelligence services.” Kerry did propose such a cut in 1995, but it amounted to about 1 percent of the overall intelligence budget and was smaller than the $3.8 billion cut the Republican-led Congress approved for the same program Kerry was targeting.
Twisting the truth
The campaign ads, which are most scrutinized, have produced a torrent of misstatements. On March 30, the Bush team released an ad noting that Kerry “supported a 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax” and saying, “If Kerry’s tax increase were law, the average family would pay $657 more a year.” But Kerry opposes an increase in the gasoline tax. The ad is based on a 10-year-old newspaper quotation of Kerry but implies the proposal is current.
Other Bush claims, though misleading, are rooted in fact. For example, Cheney’s claim in almost every speech that Kerry “has voted some 350 times for higher taxes” includes any vote in which Kerry voted to leave taxes unchanged or supported a smaller tax cut than some favored.