On Native Ground
HOW KERRY CAN BEAT THE BUSH SLIME MACHINE
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's one of the most important axioms of modern politics: define yourself before your opponent defines you.
The Bush administration knows this. Speaking before a group of conservative activists in Washington on March 17, White House political chief Karl Rove gloated about how well President George W. Bush's campaign was responding to U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
According to the Associated Press, Rove boasted how the White House is running "a nimble campaign able to counterpunch even before Kerry opens his mouth." and that the Bush campaign team "has material ready to go on Kerry based on his votes and speeches."
In other words, any time Kerry says anything, the Bush campaign is ready to pounce. The New York Times reported on March 20 that President Bush's team is in the midst of "an aggressive and precise 90-day media strategy to define Senator John Kerry as indecisive and lacking conviction, with a coordinated blitz of advertisements, speeches and sound bites."
This strategy, according to the Times, is Rove's idea. First, "strip Mr. Kerry of the positive image that he carried away from the Democratic primary contests." Then, "define him issue by issue in their own terms" before early June, with the emphasis on national security and taxes.
The GOP thinks they can pull this off because Bush has much more money to spend than Kerry and because they believe that most voters have no idea what kind of person John Kerry is. The Times quoted a Bush advisor as saying: "The goal is right now, while he's weak, while they're financially struggling, to strip him of all the good that somehow in my opinion erroneously got attached to him."
With the November election months away, the people in John Kerry's campaign think the Republicans are going negative too early in the campaign. Right now Kerry is enjoying a brief respite from the attacks, since all of the White House's energy is devoted to sliming former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke and discrediting his statements about the Bush administration's foreign policy and national security failures.
Once the Bush team is through with Clarke, Kerry will again get the treatment. They are counting on the fact that, aside from hardcore political junkies, few people know who Kerry really is. So the Bush team will be rushing to fill the vacuum by establishing their version of Kerry - a guy who's soft on terrorism and is ready to raise your taxes.
This is not a surprise, since the only sure way the President can win is by sowing enough doubt in people's minds about the other guy. There's only one problem with this strategy. It's tough for President Bush to challenge Kerry's truthfulness and honesty when the amount of lies and deceit coming out of the White House grows by the day.
I have believed from the beginning that this election would be a referendum on two issues - the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. If this is the ground that is going to be contested, Bush is in trouble.
If you believe that the ends justify the means and it doesn't matter what was done or said to lead this nation into an invasion of Iraq, you're going to vote for Bush.
But if you believe the growing body of evidence that the Bush administration ignored al-Qaida and the growing threat of a terrorist attack on American soil in favor of trying to find a way to justify attacking Iraq, you probably won't be supporting President Bush. That more than 2 1/2 years have elapsed since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks without an explanation from the Bush administration of what happened and how it could have been prevented speaks volumes about the honesty and integrity of President Bush and his people.
It's hard for Kerry to go after the President on Iraq, since he voted to give him the authority to go to war. But it wouldn't be that hard to frame the argument like this:
"I voted for the war because I believed, based on the intelligence that was presented to me, that Iraq posed a legitimate threat to our national security. I had no reason to believe at the time that the Bush administration was manipulating intelligence to justify a war that it had planned to carry out since the first day in office. I had no reason to believe that the United States would ignore the advice of our allies to not blindly rush into war. I had no reason to believe that we would isolate and denigrate the United Nations and find ways to obstruct every effort to slow down the rush to war. Most of all, I had no reason to believe that the Bush administration would be unprepared for the post-war situation in Iraq and would be totally unprepared for what has become a long and costly occupation.
"I didn't have the benefit of hindsight when I cast that vote. But I know now that what this nation has done so far in Iraq isn't working, and that a different course of action is needed."
Sure, Rove and company would immediately call such a statement a "flip-flop." But it's not. This is called reexamining a position after one discovers additional information that calls into question the original conclusion, and it is something that many people who once supported the policies of President Bush - such as Clarke and former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill - are doing.
This is how Kerry can survive the sustained slime attack that will be unleashed against him. Point out the record and the contradictions between the president's words and the president's actions. The "compassionate conservative" who slashed social welfare spending. The man who talked about environmental protection and let corporate polluters rewrite the clean air and water rules. And most of all, the man who wanted a more humble foreign policy who embarked upon a radical course of preemptive war.
The Bush team is hoping no one will notice the disconnect between its words and its deeds; between the stories they spin and the realities they are trying to hide. The testimony given by Clarke and others before the 9/11 Commission last week was the first crack in President Bush's wall of deceit regarding the Sept. 11 attacks and the run-up to the Iraq invasion. It is up to the rest of us to keep pushing until we get the truth, and make President George W. Bush a one-term president.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.