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Monday, October 18, 2004

Off the Leash

Sorry I've been away for a while - had a new baby. But I return to address a Brooks column which is simultaneously infuriating and content-free - so content-free that it seems scarcely worth the trouble to rebut it. Nonetheless, here goes.

The thesis of today's Brooks column is that the reason Kerry's daily tracking poll numbers have not improved over the past week, despite his generally acknowledged victory in the third presidential debate, is that he's spent the week attacking Bush too viciously. Brooks claims Kerry's attacks don't hold water, that voters recognize this, and that that's why his poll numbers aren't climbing. Brooks calls Kerry's campaigning "incompetent, crude and over-the-top".

Let's pretend for a moment we don't know that Brooks is acting as a flack for the Bush campaign, and take his piece seriously for a moment. What are these supposedly undisciplined and overly harsh Kerry smears?

1. "On Monday, Kerry told seniors in Florida that Bush is plotting a "January surprise" to cut their Social Security benefits by as much as 45 percent...As Kerry knows, that's ludicrous - it's a stale and transparent canard that Democrats have brought out in election after election, to less and less effect. President Bush has not entertained and would not entertain any plan that cut benefits to seniors."

President Bush has declared he intends to replace the current pay-as-you-go Social Security system with a system of tax-free retirement savings accounts. He has never explained where the money will come from to pay for current seniors' monthly checks when payments from current workers are deposited into their savings accounts, rather than paying for checks today. This trivial little mathematical oversight runs into the hundreds of billions of dollars per year. The US government is already out of money, so the only way to fund the switchover would be to reduce current seniors' checks.

Bush's promises not to reduce Social Security payments to seniors should thus be filed along with his promises during the 2000 campaing not to create deficits. They are lies. Brooks's argument here amounts to "Bush says he won't cut Social Security payments, so he won't." Why anyone should trust the fiscal promises of a president who promised a balanced budget 4 years ago, and has run up over $1 trillion of deficits since, is not clear.

2. "Kerry's second wild attack is that Bush would reinstate the draft. The administration, which hasn't even asked for trivial public sacrifices in a time of war, does not want to bring back the draft."

Brooks's evidence-free assertion that the administration doesn't "want to" bring back the draft is a pretty pointless rhetorical exercise. Whether or not the administration "wants to" bring back the draft is immaterial; the administration may not "want to" increase the US's $5 trillion debt ceiling either, but it doesn't have much choice. Bush is committed to a continuing confrontational and militaristic foreign policy which will entail ever-increasing commitments of US troops abroad, as far as the eye can see. At some point, Bush will either have to reinstate the draft or change his foreign policy - and changing policies in the face of difficult realities is something this administration does not do.

3. "Kerry's third attack is the whole Mary Cheney thing. That's been hashed over enough. But remarkably, Kerry has not apologized."

Brooks is forced to use the sleazy construction "the whole Mary Cheney thing" because if he described what it was that Kerry actually said, it'd be clear that it wasn't an "attack". Kerry said "I think that if you asked Dick Cheney's daughter Mary, who is a lesbian," whether she had known her sexual orientation since birth, she would say yes. Mary Cheney is an out lesbian. To describe her as one is not an "attack". Kerry was simply pointing out that there are out homosexuals on both sides of the aisle who feel their sexual orientation is part of their nature, not something learned.

The GOP is desperately trying to convince the American public that pointing out that some Republicans are homosexual is somehow sleazy. This is ridiculous. But they have managed to make enough hay in the press that they're no longer forced to actually repeat their absurd argument; they simply refer to "the whole Mary Cheney thing". Well, I think George Bush should lose the presidential race because of "the whole Iraq thing". How's that for reasoned argument?

4. "The fourth assault is Kerry's attack on the Bush administration's supposed "ban" on stem cell research. John Edwards's ludicrous statement that if Kerry was president, people like Christopher Reeve would be able to get up and walk was only the farcical culmination of a series of exaggerations about the possibilities of finding cures for Alzheimer's and spinal cord injuries."

Here's another dumb elision bereft of argument - "supposed 'ban'". It's unclear who used the word "ban", other than Brooks. But in any case, the charge is substantially true: scientists say they need more stem cell lines; the Bush admin says they can't have them. When Brooks calls Edwards's statement "ludicrous", he's simply insulting the hopes of everyone who needs help from the kinds of treatments stem cell research might provide.

What's really infuriating about this kind of tactic on Brooks's part is that he knows perfectly well what Edwards was trying to do with his statement: he was trying to illustrate, in a concrete fashion, the possible benefits which a certain rather abstract type of scientific research might provide. The real benefits of stem cell research are hard to predict, but the scientific consensus is that they are extremely promising in lots of different fields. What we're really talking about here is freedom of scientific inquiry versus know-nothing religious irrationalism and the maniacal evangelical cult of the foetus. But we all know voters often have trouble relating to claims made in complex or abstract terms - no one has ever won an election running on the freedom of scientific inquiry. It was Ronald Reagan who pioneered the technique of using concrete, folksy examples of individual people to illustrate the goals of complex policy decisions. Yet when Democrats try to use this technique, Republicans call the tying of complex policy initiatives to specific cases "ludicrous".

Okay, here's a thought: what adjective would you use to describe President Bush's linkage of the war in Iraq to the prospect of democracy and freedom in the Arab world? Does "ludicrous" come to mind?

In fact, it's telling that Brooks repeatedly uses the word "ludicrous" to describe Kerry's current campaign themes. Of course, if Al Gore had charged during the 2000 campaign that Bush's policies would result in a $420 billion deficit by 2004, Brooks would no doubt have called the accusation equally "ludicrous". Unfortunately, this administration is so nuts that when you describe what they're doing accurately, the description appears...ludicrous.

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