2004 Election: Candidates push the limits of partisan finger-pointing

Election-year accusations are nothing new, but have they gone too far?

Election-year accusations are nothing new, but have they gone too far?

A casual observer of the 2004 election season could be forgiven for thinking that voting for John Kerry was the leading cause of terrorism in the US. He or she might also think George W. Bush personally whisked Osama Bin Laden to safety in 2002 when US troops had him surrounded in Tora Bora. And let's not forget Dick Cheney's weekly wire transfers to Halliburton. Presidential campaigns always get nasty, and this one is no exception. But much has been written lately about the ruthlessness of the accusations and rhetoric this year. A quick look at the recent political dialogue reveals why. Republicans are getting a lot of mileage from the idea that Kerry maintains big support among the terrorist bloc. On September 21, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said terrorists "are going to throw everything they can between now and the election to try and elect Kerry." Earlier this year, deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage said insurgents in Iraq "are trying to influence the election against President Bush." And, of course, there's the now-infamous statement made last month by Vice President Dick Cheney in Des Moines, IA, suggesting that any American casting a ballot for someone other than Bush would bear responsibility for further attacks. "If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, and that we'll be hit in a way that is devastating to the United States," he said. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter - she of the "invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity" wisdom - weighed in with her belief that a President Kerry would "improve the economy in the emergency services and body-bag industry." The Democrats, on the other hand, were initially determined to stay positive, so they've gotten off to a bit of a late start - though they seem to be doing their best to catch up. Kerry and his surrogates stepped gleefully into the ring last month, accusing Bush of "stubborn incompetence" and "colossal failures of judgment." The Democratic senator then went on to use the first debate to accuse the President of letting Osama Bin Laden escape from the mountains of Tora Bora through his use of Afghan warlords as proxy fighters for US troops. "He outsourced that job, too," said Kerry. In truth, the evidence that Bin Laden was in Tora Bora at the time is speculative at best. Do such statements cross the line, or "test the conventional bounds of political rhetoric," as The Washington Post recently claimed? Has political rhetoric ever adhered to some set of "conventional bounds?" Also, do candidates who cross some imagined ethical line risk an angry backlash from offended voters? Probably not. How far is too far? "There is no line to step over. We've crossed that line so may times we've erased it from the sidewalk," says Dr. John Robert Greene, the Paul J. Schupf professor of history and humanities at Cazenovia College. It's long been understood that an election season marked by nasty, negative campaigning sees lower voter participation. Few political experts refute that. But even fewer seem to think a particular candidate suffers disproportionately for being the one who makes the accusations. "Negative campaigning does drive down voter turnout, but the people who do turn out are more rabidly for or against their candidate," Greene explains. Hence, when running a close race, he believes, testing the public's tolerance for nastiness can be uniquely effective. Cheney's Des Moines quip is a perfect example. Not only did the remark convey a horrifying image of a Kerry victory, it so shocked the political world that Kerry, his surrogates, and half the punditry spent the next several weeks discussing it. No evidence exists to suggest there's been a backlash against Cheney, but Kerry's team nonetheless redirected much-needed attention to it. "That's a perfect example of a nice, strong, negative hit," says Greene. "Kerry was forced to come out and say, 'Dick Cheney's not playing nice,' and he was completely off the issues, completely off the reservation... And there was never any backlash. Did you see [Bush] fall in the polls? "And do you think Cheney really cares if anyone thinks he's a nice guy?" he asks. Besides, historically speaking, there's nothing shocking about anything said this campaign season, regardless of how often pundits and the media characterize it as the "nastiest campaign ever." "Perhaps we weren't around when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson took off after each other," says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, "but the truth of the matter is that politics has always been a rough business, and in some ways I think it's even less distasteful than it once was, if only because we have more carefully defined things like libel laws and slander." Hess adds: "In the 19th century, the first third of it at least, [politicians] had duels if they didn't like each other. They killed each other. Nobody is suggesting that Bush and Kerry choose weapons." But even Hess admits that the tone of this campaign, though maybe not shocking in the long view, does mark a return to a brand of partisan finger-pointing not seen in recent decades. America's return to war could explain a lot of that. But changes in the media do, too. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the blog era's first presidential campaign so closely resembles something out of the 19th century. One of the driving forces behind nasty campaigning back then was the partisan press: newspapers or pamphleteers long on hysterical accusations but short on accountability - which should sound awfully familiar to anyone following this election. "During the era of the partisan press, there was very little scrutiny of what was actually stated," says James Vike, assistant professor of government and politics at Widener University, "and they were very open to very aggressively attacking opponents." Beware of the blog It's hard to deny the impact bloggers have had on this election thus far. Their one-sided coverage of the conventions, their daily compilations of every available accusation about the opposition, their near-total domination of the recent Dan Rather scandal - it all amounts to an engine for rabid partisanship rarely seen in modern times. Sites such as Daily Kos, InstaPundit, and Little Green Footballs have won audiences by appealing to hatred not just of the other party, but the mainstream press (which is ironically now feeding off blog-fueled stories to keep a hold on riled-up readers). With only a few weeks to go before Election Day, expect the tone to continue its slide away from civility. For as Vike points out, whatever accountability there may be early in an election season more or less evaporates as the voting draws close. "As it gets closer to the election, it gets harder and harder to hold accountable these shadow groups that pay for attack ads," he says. Most of these groups are required to disclose their sources of funding, but only periodically. The last weeks of the election season offer donors an opportunity to attack through these groups without being identified until after the votes have been counted. It's a loophole that's been exploited before and will most definitely be exploited in a year like this, when both sides are choosing their weapons.

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