Bush-Kerry: Meaning the Same
June 18, 2004
has become a staple of the national press corps’ “conventional wisdom” that
George W. Bush and John Kerry really aren’t very different on many issues,
if one looks past the rhetorical tone to their actual policies. But this
supposedly tough-minded analysis may be just one more example of the news
media’s sophomoric political thinking.
The core fallacy of this “tweedle-dee-tweedle-dum”
analysis is the assumption that Bush actually means what he says, when his
record is that he often says what is convenient to the moment or what may
stir up Americans but turns out to be untrue. Indeed, if there’s one lesson
the news media should have learned in the past three years, it’s that Bush
isn’t the “straight-shooter” he pretends to be.
On both little and big issues, from his petty shifting
of blame for the “Mission Accomplished” banner to his momentous false claims
about weapons of mass destruction, Bush has demonstrated that his comments
can’t be taken at face value. So, it makes little sense for national pundits
to compare the words of Kerry and Bush as a meaningful measure of how
similar their policies are.
An example of this approach appeared in an influential
article – entitled “Despite Rhetoric, Bush, Kerry Agree On Many Issues” – by
Washington Post political writer Jim VandeHei. The May 9 article, whose
theme has been repeated endlessly on TV pundit shows, concluded that Bush
and Kerry have nearly identical policies on a wide range of issues, from the
budget to taxes to Iraq.
For instance, as one example of their matching
policies, VandeHei cited the federal deficit, which both Bush and Kerry
favor cutting in half by 2009. But any similarity in their positions is only
superficial, to be found in their words not in their records. Any sensible
analyst would note that Bush is proposing cutting in half a record budget
deficit that he created in the first place.
After taking office in 2001 with a promise to keep the
budget balanced, Bush turned an estimated $4.6 trillion 10-year budget surplus into
a deficit in excess of $2.5 trillion, according to Congressional Budget
Office projections (measured from actual deficit figures from 2001-2003 and
projected figures from 2004-2010). [see
www.cbo.gov for details]
So there are strong reasons to take Bush’s halving
the budget claim with a large grain of salt. He didn’t live up to his budget
promise in Campaign 2000 and he hasn’t shown much skill in bringing the
deficit under control since then.
By contrast, though Kerry doesn’t have a record as
President, he did support the Clinton administration’s policies of targeted
tax increases and spending controls that contributed not only to cutting the
$290 billion deficit of 1992, but turning it into the $236 billion surplus in 2000. So while
the rhetoric might be similar, the records are starkly different – and thus
the policies must be evaluated in that light.
VandeHei also observed that both Bush and Kerry want to
maintain the tax cuts for the middle class, supposedly demonstrating again
how they are pursuing identical policies. But that analysis is misguided,
too, because the more important point is that Bush and Kerry differ over
what to do about tax cuts for the wealthy. Bush wants to keep all the tax
cuts that he pushed through Congress and wants to make some temporary cuts
permanent. Kerry wants to repeal Bush's marginal income tax cuts that go
exclusively to those who make $200,000 or more per year.
Rather than showing that the candidates are on the same
page in their tax policies, their tax positions actually represent
significant differences, indeed possibly the most fundamental differences
between Republicans and Democrats.
VandeHei’s influential Post article also contributed to
the “conventional wisdom” that Kerry and Bush have essentially the same
policy on Iraq. Kerry did vote for Bush’s war resolution in 2002 and the two
candidates now say they favor greater involvement by the United Nations in
resolving the conflict.
But sincerity also has to be factored in before
deciding that the two candidates are presenting the same strategy. Though
Bush has said he wants the U.N. involved in Iraq and so does Kerry, their
notions of what this international cooperation would mean contrast
dramatically. People who have known Kerry for years have no doubt that he is
sincere in his desire to share the load with international organizations,
while Bush sees the U.N. folks mostly as people to carry his bags.
In a typical statement in the run-up to the U.S.-led
invasion, Bush demanded that the U.N. “show some backbone” and join him in
confronting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein over weapons of mass destruction.
“The United Nations deserves another chance to prove its relevance,” Bush
comments on Sept. 15, 2002.]
While perhaps now chastened by the failure to find the
WMD stockpiles and by the stubborn resistance of Iraqi guerrilla fighters,
Bush continues essentially to demand that the U.N. prove its “relevance” by
serving his political needs in Iraq.
Most recently, Bush declared that U.N. emissary Lakhdar
Brahimi would pick the interim Iraqi government, but later Brahimi was
overridden on his choices for the top two posts. In the end, the interim
government resembled a reshuffled version of the Iraqi Governing Council
that had been handpicked by Bush’s civilian administrator, Paul Bremer.
So it’s at best misleading to equate Bush’s denigrating
attitude toward the U.N. with Kerry’s calls for a mutually respectful
relationship. Again, the strategy on internationalizing the Iraq War may be
more a major policy difference than a similarity, despite the commonality in
the surface words.
Kerry’s vote for the war resolution also reflected more
differences in the two approaches than consensus with Bush. Kerry said he
favored giving the President the war authority so he would have a stronger
hand in getting Hussein to come clean on his WMD programs and in rallying
international support for a muscular inspections regime if Hussein resisted.
Bush, however, saw the resolution as just another
milestone on his route to war, a policy that was already firmly in place
within his administration in 2001 despite Bush’s verbal assurances that he
hadn’t made up his mind. [For details, see Ron Suskind’s book, Price of
Loyalty, about former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s experiences in
the Bush administration, or Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies.]
Bush also has insisted that he’s not a “unilateralist”
– and he can cite his “coalition of the willing” countries in Iraq – but the
obvious reality is that Bush does believe in his right to take unilateral
action, with or without the approval of Congress and the United Nations, to
attack countries that he judges as possible future threats to U.S. national
security. Indeed, unilateral action is the core element of what’s known as
the Bush Doctrine of Preemptive War.
Obviously, the two presidential candidates agree on
some mom-and-apple-pie issues, but so would any national candidates
regardless of their political ideologies. In this regard, VandeHei mentions
that both Bush and Kerry would “limit government spending,” as if anyone
would run on a platform of unlimited government spending. He also notes that
Kerry and Bush both oppose turning over U.S. national security to some
foreign country or institution, as if any U.S. President would advocate
Lip Service & Lies
But the Washington press corps can’t seem to accept the
possibility that Bush may simply be paying lip service to some more
controversial positions. It does go against Bush’s long-standing image as a
Yet between the phantom Iraqi nuclear weapons project,
the never-proven links to al-Qaeda – and now evidence that the prison
torture abuse scandal reaches far beyond “a few bad apples” – Bush’s record
on Iraq should trouble even the most gullible of hearts.
Even on something as petty as the circumstances
surrounding the USS Abraham Lincoln’s “Mission Accomplished” banner, which
was unfurled behind him for his seaborne victory speech on May 1, 2003, Bush
can’t tell a straight story.
In November 2003, as the U.S. death toll was rising and
the banner became an embarrassment, Bush tried to shift responsibility for
the slogan to the crewmen. “The ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign, of course, was
put up by the members of the USS Abraham Lincoln, saying that their mission
was accomplished,” Bush told reporters. “I know it was attributed somehow to
some ingenious advance man from my staff. They weren’t that ingenious, by
Later White House officials acknowledged that the
banner had been created at their direction, though they insisted that the
idea had come from the crew. On April 30, 2004, Bush amended the explanation
further. “A year ago, I did give the speech from the carrier, saying that we
had achieved an important objective, that we’d accomplished a mission, which
was the removal of Saddam Hussein.” [Washington Post, May 1, 2004]
So, apparently, the “Mission Accomplished” idea was
Bush’s all along – referring not to the crew’s mission but to Bush’s mission
of ousting Saddam Hussein. He just shifted the blame to the crewmen when
that seemed like the expedient thing to do and later switched it back when
he had figured out a way to spin it.
Still, despite Bush’s record as someone who can’t keep
a story straight, he retains his reputation with much of the Washington
press corps and many American citizens as someone who tells you what’s on
The opposite is true of Kerry. Reacting to what they’ve absorbed
from national TV coverage and campaign ads, 61 percent of Americans in one
poll said Kerry is someone who says what he thinks people want to hear. Only
43 percent said that about Bush.
With Bush, there’s always the legend and the reality.
Arguably more than any President in history, Bush has sought to project
boldness, strength and frankness. Through his posture, clothes and
rhetorical style, Bush has honed a character that looks, sounds and acts
authentic, even when he’s blatantly misleading the public.
Since his first days as a candidate for governor of
Texas, Bush has painted himself as a self-made Texas businessman with a
strong religious faith and the moral values consistent with the Bible Belt
of Midland, Texas. But this character hardly squares with the real George
Bush, who was born to great personal privilege and consistently “failed up.”
Though supporting the Vietnam War, Bush didn’t want to
go there and fight. Instead, he snagged a coveted spot in the Texas Air
National Guard, which protected him from the draft. From there, however, he
disappeared from regular duty, skipped a required flight physical and got
out early to go to Harvard Business School.
In business, whenever one of his
companies ran into trouble, his father’s friends or associates bailed him
out. His political career derived almost entirely from his family’s
If Bush had been born into a less fortunate family and
acted as recklessly as he often did, he almost certainly would have ended up
a failure. Conceivably, he could have landed in jail, either from his
substance abuse or his financial dealings. He definitely wouldn’t be
President of the United States. It is hard to think of a corner that Bush
hasn’t cut in his life – or of an accomplishment that he actually achieved
on his own.
By contrast, Kerry was born into a well-to-do family
but saw that privilege more as a responsibility. Though opposed to the
Vietnam War while at Yale, he volunteered for combat duty in one of the most
dangerous assignments in the Navy, skippering a fast boat along the Mekong
River. After returning home with a Silver Star and other medals, Kerry chose
to speak out against the war with the goal of bringing it to an end.
politics, he often has taken on politically risky investigations, such as
probing the Reagan-Bush administration’s secret wars in Central America and
examining the bipartisan financial corruption surrounding the Bank of
Commerce and Credit International.
Yet, whatever the reality, Bush is widely praised for
his steadfastness, while Kerry is tagged for equivocating. Though Washington
journalists might be expected to know better, they have bought into the
image of the straight-talking Bush versus the waffling Kerry. Indeed, one
could argue that Bush’s greatest achievement has been his ability to sell
his image to the Washington press corps and through them the American
Polls suggest that the American people, like
movie-goers, have suspended their sense reality to accept Bush’s legend. By
wide poll margins, in the 60 to 70 percent range, the American people say
that Bush is a strong, decisive leader with a clear vision of where he wants
to lead the country. On the downside, however, a growing number also say
they don’t like where the country is headed.
But the national news media may again be giving Bush a
break by spreading the “conventional wisdom” that Kerry wants to take the
country in pretty much the same direction as Bush does. The choice then
would be between the two personalities, a contest that Bush might prefer.
The truth, however, may be that the two candidates may
be using similar words but meaning very different things.