The character issue

I freely confess that Mickey Kaus understands the spin game much better than I do, but I think he gets it wrong on the Bush AWOL issue. Why raise it now, he says, and make it “old news” by the time November comes around?

The simple response is that it’s being raised now, not by anyone’s decision, but because of the vulnerability Michael Moore’s loose mouth (and his own passivity) created for Wesley Clark, and the eagerness of Bush’s friends such as Peter Jennings to exploit that vulnerability. That flap brought the issue of Bush’s military record back from the fringers and into the mainstream media mix.

If Mickey has an idea about how the issue could have been left to rest now with Jennings’s assertion that there was “no factual basis” for Moore’s charge, and then revived at some more convenient moment, I’d like to hear it. My sense, for what it’s worth, is that if the issue had been allowed to die now, having died once in the 2000 campaign, it couldn’t have been resurrected later. It would have been, not just “old news,” but a discredited charge.

But even if the timing had been a decision rather than an accident, I don’t think the timing is bad from the viewpoint of the Democrats’ eventual nominee. The real issue isn’t war service, it’s character: the “honor and integrity” Mr. Bush promised and has so signally failed to deliver.

We’re likely to have at least a week of controversy now while the White House tries to dig itself out from under the President’s promise to Tim Russert to release all his military records without actually letting out all of his military records. (If today’s release of payroll records showing six days’ service in 1972 is the best they can do, they’re in bad shape.) And we may well have follow-up stories if news organizations (or perhaps even groups of veterans) submit FOIA requests accompanied by requests that the President waive his Privacy Act rights.

All of that makes a nice companion to the WMD story and the budget story and the Medicare story and the employment-estimate story. It all helps establish that the truth is not in Mr. Bush.

Mickey is right that this won’t prevent attacks by the Bush team on Kerry’s patriotism. But it will blunt their effectiveness, by discrediting the source. It’s an old technique, sometimes called “poisoning the well.” Pretty reliably effective, if the past is any guide.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

One thought on “The character issue”

  1. I Demand Validation in the Comments!

    I thought it was pretty well accepted that the press did a pretty lousy job of covering Bush's Air National Guard service in 2000. I thought it was further accepted amongst my ilk that the President, while a younger man,…

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