Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
Home | Columns | Posts | Topics | Email list | About | Search

Using "Changing the Tone" to Suppress Criticism

By Brendan Nyhan (brendan@spinsanity.org)
June 4, 2001
[Email this to a friend]

Though some may not admit it, Democrats have been largely ineffective in opposing President Bush during the first few months of his administration. One reason for this is the way that Bush has successfully shaped the political debate. In particular, Bush's seemingly innocuous campaign promise to "change the tone" in Washington has proven to be a powerful rhetorical weapon, helping suppress criticism while portraying the President as above the fray.

A second look at changing the tone

Bush's claim was originally considered plausible because he collaborated with Democrats in Texas and was not a part of the Washington GOP establishment. However, the "changing the tone" concept, which implies a contrast with Preident Clinton, is itself a rhetorical sleight of hand, as Washington Post reporter John Harris notes. The reality is that Clinton met with a number of Republicans and, after 1994, governed largely as a centrist. In addition, Clinton's rhetoric never descended to the vitriolic level of his opponents, although surrogates like James Carville and Sidney Blumenthal sometimes came close.

Since entering office, Bush's efforts to change the tone have included meeting with many Democrats, some of whom have backed him on key votes. Also, he has, like most presidents, refrained from direct personal attacks, although "changing the tone" often conceals hypocritical political hardball behind the scenes. Much worse, though, is the way that the concept has been employed to suppress Democratic opposition. In some cases, of course, criticizing Democratic rhetoric is absolutely justified, but Bush has been largely successful in defining almost any real opposition to his policies as old-style partisanship.

This is possible for two reasons. Bush knows his opponents will be attacked by a largely conservative punditry (see, for example, the campaign to define Tom Daschle as a lying, partisan ideologue). And, with an aura of inevitability behind him, as William Saletan has argued, Bush's rhetoric has weight behind it for now.

A tale of two tones in the White House vandalism story

First, consider a timely example of how hypocritical Bush's claim to be changing the tone really is. As reported by Salon.com, there is credible evidence that the Bush administration leaked exaggerated and false allegations of vandalism by outgoing Clinton White House staffers, while claiming in public that the administration did not want to focus on the story.

The story broke on January 23 as gossip about keyboards missing the letter "W". From there, it's clear the administration drove the story, beginning with a January 24 leak to Matt Drudge that the damage was far more extensive than reported. The next day, when asked about the report, Fleischer said that the administration is "cataloging that which took place," giving substantial credence to the allegations. But, he claimed, Bush didn't want to discuss specific acts of vandalism:

I choose not to describe what acts were done that we found upon arrival because I think that's part of changing the tone in Washington ... President Bush chooses to set a different tone.

Of course, Fleischer's confirmation of damage gave the press a pretext to run stories featuring unsourced rumors, giving rise to a media frenzy as newspapers reported the allegations of widespread damage (many of which were later discredited) without any real evidence. Pundits and editorial boards railed against the supposed vandalism, creating a favorable contrast for Bush. Examples include Fox News Channel mentioning it thirteen separate times in the first week, pundit Linda Bowles demanding that those responsible be "hauled into court", and the Houston Chronicle calling the Clinton administration "the gang that couldn't loot straight."

However, in recent weeks, the story has come into question after the General Accounting Office looked into the matter and found no evidence of damage. A "leading White House reporter" told Salon that the story had been "nudged along" by Bush staffers.

After continued scrutiny of the original allegations, Fleischer, who had claimed he had tried to "knock [the story] down", released a compilation of claimed damage that is less severe than previous reports. More importantly, as Josh Marshall points out, Fleischer's supposed evidence lacks any real documentation. In the case of the alleged White House vandalism, "changing the tone" has meant manipulating journalists to discredit the previous administration.

Claiming success for changing the tone

Bush has also defined the absence of effective Democratic opposition as success in changing the tone. For example, Bush cited a changing tone as a major accomplishment of his first 100 days in an April 25 interview:

I've been changing the tone in Washington, and that's very important because Washington can be a very acrimonious and bitter place where people are here for -- to further their own political agendas as opposed to doing what's right for the people...

Note how Bush has suggested in a subtle way that people who oppose him could be seen as "acrimonious", "bitter" and "further[ing] their own political agendas". He also implies that it's impossible to have an honest disagreement with him - "what's right for the people" is, of course, his agenda.

About a month later, Bush aggressively elaborated on the changed tone concept:

Changing the tone of our Nation's Capital hasn't been easy... The only thing I can do, and the only thing Dick Cheney and others in our administration can do is to control our own responses. When I hear my policies and my nominees attacked in a hostile and partisan way, I simply hear the echoes of an era behind us. I'm not going to take the bait. I'm going to lead this country to a new level of respect.

Bush is blatantly delegitimizing opposition to his administration here. Again, what this means in practice is that Bush can claim that opposition is not just wrong but outdated, harsh partisanship from "an era behind us". The "new level of respect", as Bush defines it, would effectively be one in which no one sharply criticizes him.

A new tone on energy?

Finally, Bush has made heavy use of the new tone concept on the issue of energy and the environment. Having rhetorically created an "energy crisis", Bush is pushing an energy plan that faces the most effective Democratic opposition of his administration. He therefore deployed the "new tone" to try to protect himself:

Just as we need a new tone in Washington, we also need a new tone in discussing energy and the environment, one that is less suspicious, less punitive, less rancorous. We've yelled at each other enough. Now is the time to listen to each other and to act.

While Democratic attacks on Bush have bordered on the outlandish at times, this is not a substantive response to his critics; it's an attempt to suppress criticism, at least some of which is legitimate. One wonders whether Bush expected his energy plan to sail through with no opposition.

Bush was further challenged last week by California Governor Gray Davis, who is struggling with his state's electricity problems. Looking for a political scapegoat, Davis and his allies have started attacking Bush for failing to support wholesale price caps on electricity. Consider Bush's response on Tuesday to Davis's criticism:

Energy debates sometimes throw off some sparks. But this is no time for harsh rhetoric. It's certainly no time for name-calling. It's time for leadership. It's time for results. It's time to put politics aside and focus on the best interests of the people.

Certainly, a reasonable case could be made that Davis has not shown leadership on this issue. However, Bush is again defining opposition as "name-calling" and "harsh rhetoric".

GOP attacks as Bush keeps to changed tone

With the changed tone defined rhetorically, Bush and the Republicans are now starting to launch their own attacks. According to Paul Bedard of US News & World Report, a "top GOP official" said that "[t]he change in the Senate has effectively ended President Bush's ban on partisan sniping." Bedard writes: "Don't look for Bush to break the civility code," but "[h]is aides and allies are already at it" in their attacks on Davis. While "all Bush mouthpieces will try to refrain from personal attacks", "[t]he GOP will mine newspaper morgues and personal info to highlight hypocritical actions by Democrats."

No doubt Democratic attacks on Bush will continue to sometimes be deceptive, hyperbolic or just wrong, but that is not an excuse. Healthy political debate, including tough criticism, is essential to democracy. This administration is subtly defining opposition to Bush as illegitimate - and that is ultimately harmful to our democracy.

Subscribe to our email list and we'll keep you updated on who's trying to spin you.

Related items on Spinsanity:
-Ben Fritz, Clinton 'vandalism' another false scandal (5/23 post)
-Brendan Nyhan, "Where's the outrage?" (5/11 post)
-Bryan Keefer, "Powering Up the Rhetoric" (5/21 column)

Home | Columns | Posts | Topics | Email list | About | Search

This website is copyright (c) 2001-2002 by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan. Please send letters to the editor for publication to letters@spinsanity.org and private questions or comments to feedback@spinsanity.org.