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The liberal who cried wolf

By Ben Fritz
December 8, 2003

In a June 6 speech about Medicare, President Bush said, "We must protect seniors from high medical costs that can rob them of their savings." And with the recently passed Medicare bill, which adds a prescription drug benefit to the government's health insurance program for seniors, the President claims to have done just that.

Yet according to a prominent liberal website, the Medicare bill is de facto proof of dishonesty by President Bush because it includes a provision supported by Democrats that forbids the government from using its purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices. Does the objection prove that Bush was lying? Of course not. On the contrary, it's nothing more than the sort of ideological disagreement that is inherent to democracy.

Unfortunately, the Medicare example is just one of many false accusations of presidential dishonesty leveled by "The Daily Mislead", which accused Bush of deception due to the Medicare provision on three separate occasions (here, here and here). The Mislead is a new project of the increasingly influential liberal organization MoveOn.org, which claims to reach more than two million activists and recently received a donation of up to $5 million from philanthropist George Soros, who is working to prevent President Bush's re-election.

The Daily Mislead's website claims that it provides "an accurate daily chronicle for journalists of misrepresentations, distortions and downright misleading statements by President Bush and the Bush Administration," but in most cases since its first issue on September 15, 2003, it has done nothing of the kind. Instead, despite numerous examples of actual deception by the Bush administration, The Mislead has generally presented a series of partisan accusations of dishonesty based on nothing more than political disagreement. Like too many participants in the media bias debate, MoveOn is churning out a series of analyses designed to support a pre-conceived agenda - whether the facts fit the case or not.

In short, with The Daily Mislead, MoveOn has become the leader of a new school of liberal criticism that seeks to brand every policy disagreement with President Bush as a broken promise or lie. These loose accusations trivialize charges of dishonesty, reducing them to little more than another partisan spin tactic.

Vague promises, partisan interpretations

The most frequent way in which The Daily Mislead unfairly accuses the Bush administration of dishonesty is to present evidence of a vague promise made by the president and attack him for betraying this promise by not supporting some favored liberal policy (such as spending more money on the issue).

For instance, on November 20, the Mislead made this accusation: "President Bush unveiled his energy plan in May 2001, vowing to 'make this country the world's leader in energy efficiency and conservation in the 21st century.' But the energy bill under final consideration by the Senate and supported by the President devotes less than ten percent of the $25.7 billion in tax breaks to energy efficiency."

But why is ten percent not enough? How much would be enough? MoveOn never says, because it's too busy engaging in partisan attacks posing as objective analysis of dishonesty. It later points out that, "The bill allocates only $1.5 billion over ten years in new energy efficiency spending, $300 million less than for 'clean coal' technology, considered by environmentalists to be an oxymoron." But why are environmentalists right about "clean coal" and why isn't $1.5 billion enough? It also notes that, "Around $14.5 billion of the tax breaks, about 62%, go to fossil fuels and nuclear power subsidies." Nuclear power, of course, produces no air pollution and is supported by some as an environmentally-friendly power source. MoveOn may disagree, as it does with the Bush administration's spending on energy efficiency, but it provides no evidence as to why this disagreement is evidence of dishonesty.

Similarly, on October 21, the Mislead attacked Bush for not requesting as much for veterans' health as the American Legion, a veterans group, would like and for not engaging in emergency spending approved by Congress that included extra funds for veterans' health. The Mislead's evidence that this position was dishonest? An extremely vague statement by the President in which he said, "Veterans are a priority for this administration... and that priority is reflected in my budget."

The examples of "dishonesty" that consist of little more than vague statements and partisan disagreement go on. On October 17, the Mislead said the Bush administration's campaign to promote the success of the Iraq war was dishonest because troop morale is low. On October 7, it attacked the President's statement that education would be his "top priority" after he proposed only a small increase in funding for federal educational programs. And on October 30, it accused the president of being deceptive when he promised to make the national park system the "crown jewel of America's recreation system" because of a dispute over funding for park maintenance and the fact that some parks have long waits for student groups to visit.

Disagreement equals dishonesty

In other cases, The Daily Mislead has made accusations of dishonesty that might be serious, but the only evidence MoveOn marshals for its cause is highly subjective.

For example, the October 14 Mislead opens with the following statement: "Despite President Bush's rhetorical claim that 'the best safeguard against abuse is full disclosure,' Republican Senator Arlen Specter compares the lack of candor from the Administration about the Patriot Act to 'a big black hole.'" Why should we believe Specter's accusation? MoveOn doesn't tell us. It also notes that, "Fellow Republican Senator Chuck Grassley says 'it's like pulling teeth to get answers' from Attorney General John Ashcroft about whether the Justice Department may be using the Act to justify wrongful handling of Americans detained simply on suspicion of terrorist connections." The Mislead then notes that Ashcroft has testified before Congress three times since early 2002, while Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld did so 12 times, but fails to grapple with potential reasons for the difference, such as the war in Iraq.

These are subjective accusations against the President, not serious analyses of dishonesty. The October 1 Mislead makes a similarly absurd claim, stating that, "On Tuesday members of the Iraqi Governing Council contradicted Secretary of State Colin Powell's optimistic timetable for self-government, saying it could take up to 18 months to ratify a constitution, thus extending the U. S. occupation into 2005. This is far longer than senior administration members suggested just last week but is exactly what President Bush's father warned might happen." That the Bush administration disagrees with the Iraqi Governing Council about the timetable for the occupation and that this claim contradicts a statement by George H.W. Bush Sr. in a 1998 book are not in themselves evidence of dishonesty, though, just disagreement.

Trying isn't good enough

Another favorite tactic of the Mislead has been to blast the administration for promises it was unable to fulfill or policy plans that changed due to altered circumstances. In essence, these supposed examples of dishonesty actually consist of outcomes the Bush administration cannot realistically control.

The very first Mislead, from September 15, included such an attack, nothing that Bush said his "first goal is an economy that [will] employ every man and woman who seeks a job." MoveOn then attacked the President because the economy had lost approximately 2.5 million jobs since Bush came into office. The fact that the economy has not created jobs, however, is not evidence that Bush didn't attempt to spur job creation through his economic policies.

Similarly, the Misleads from September 29 and October 3 attack the administration for not reaching the job creation goals it offered in support of its tax cut plans. And in perhaps the biggest stretch of all, the October 24 Mislead implied that a Bush pledge to crack down on corporate leaders who violate the public trust was broken by an internal memo at military contractor Haliburton, which is obviously not proof of deception by the administration.

Bad facts and bad logic

Worst of all, the Mislead occasionally engages in deception of its own, citing inaccurate or misleading evidence or publishing articles that do not even include accusations of dishonesty by the Bush administration.

The November 25 Mislead analyzed the situation in Iraq and accused Bush of dishonesty because "President Bush yesterday said that we 'put the Taliban out of business forever' - taking credit for supposedly ridding the world of the terrorist regime." It goes on to describe "The President's declarations that the challenges in Afghanistan are over." But the November 24 speech quoted in the Mislead is all about the ongoing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In it, Bush makes clear that Taliban is still a threat and that challenges remain in Afghanistan, saying, "We are fighting the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other parts of the world so we do not have to fight them on the streets of our own cities." Bush is clearly acknowledging the continued turmoil in Afghanistan, which consists in part of fighting remnants of the Taliban regime.

On September 19, the Mislead cited a quote by Vice President Cheney on NBC's "Meet the Press" in March when he said "we believe [Saddam Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." It notes that six months later, Cheney said, "I misspoke." But despite the Mislead's title, "Bush Administration Spends Week Retracting Assertions about Saddam's Threat to the U.S.," the evidence actually suggests that Cheney did simply misspeak. In the same interview, Cheney referred to Iraq's attempts to reconstitute its "nuclear program," and said Iraq had "pursued" nuclear weapons and that "We know he's out trying once again to produce nuclear weapons." In context, Cheney was clearly referring to Iraq's attempts to obtain nuclear weapons, not alleging it possessed them at the time.

At times, the Mislead's arguments verge on irrelevant, because there's simply no logic to support a claim of Bush administration dishonesty. The November 6 Mislead, for instance, is about the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers was considering canceling a no-bid contract extension with Haliburton. It contains no evidence at all that anyone in the Bush administration was involved in the overcharges that led to the potential cancellation. And on November 14, the Mislead attacked Bush administration changes in overtime rules that some analysts said would lead to millions of workers losing their right to overtime pay. The evidence that this is dishonest is a quote in which the President promoted his tax cut plan because it returns money to the American people. The idea that Bush's support for tax cuts means that he should support any plan that would lead to workers being paid more is absurd on its face.

Adding deception, not fighting it

Although it occasionally contains legitimate instances of Bush administration dishonesty, The Daily Mislead is primarily a vehicle for MoveOn's partisan attacks on the president. There's nothing inherently wrong with partisanship, but framing these attacks as objective analysis of dishonesty is highly deceptive.

The Daily Mislead is just one more example of how partisans eager to exploit the public's frustration with actual dishonesty by their leaders systematically conflate disagreement with deception. Until we recognize the difference, it will be hard to sort out truth from fiction.

Correction 11/9 7:33 AM EST: Bush's November 24 speech in which he said we "put the Taliban out of business forever" was incorrectly labeled as a November 6 speech in the original version of this column.

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Related links:
-Spinsanity on attacks on George W. Bush
-Spinsanity on George W. Bush
-Unreliable quotations (Brendan Nyhan, 7/7/03)
-Foul cry (Ben Fritz, 7/1/02)

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