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Deception becomes all too conventional

By Brendan Nyhan and Ben Fritz
September 7, 2004

From the distortion of John Kerry's decision to volunteer for swift boat duty in Vietnam to his promotion of a supposed plan to cut the federal budget deficit in half, the Democratic convention offered more than its share of spin to viewers. Last week, it was the Republicans' turn, and the GOP deployed a wide array of specific, factually misleading attacks against their opponent.

On Monday, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani twisted Kerry's words on several issues, as Glenn Kessler pointed out in the Washington Post. For instance, Giuliani alleged that Kerry "at one point declared himself an anti-war candidate, and now he says he's a pro-war candidate." This is a double distortion. First, the supposed "anti-war" claim is taken out of context. During an appearance on MSNBC's "Hardball," host Chris Matthews and Kerry had the following exchange:

MATTHEWS: Do you think you belong in that category of candidates who more or less are unhappy with this war? The way it's been fought? Along with General Clark, along with Howard Dean, and not necessarily in companionship politically on the issue of the war with people like Lieberman, Edwards and Gephardt? Are you one of the anti-war candidates?
KERRY: I am. Yes. In the sense that I don't believe the President took to us war as he should have, yes. Absolutely. Do I think this president violated his promises to America? Yes, I do, Chris. Was there a way to hold Saddam Hussein accountable? You bet there was and we should have done it right.

Read in context, Kerry was making the point that he disagreed with how Bush took the country to war, not that he opposed the use of force against Saddam as a matter of principle.

Similarly, Kerry has not declared himself to be "pro-war." This appears to be a reference to the candidate's declaration that he would have still voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq knowing what is known today, but as we have pointed out, such a statement does not indicate support for Bush's decision to go to war or his execution of it.

In another case, Giuliani said that, "In October of 2003, [Kerry] told an Arab American institute in Detroit that a security barrier separating Israel from the Palestinian territories was a barrier to peace. Okay. Then a few months later, he took exactly the opposite position. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post he said, 'Israel's security fence is a legitimate act of self defense.'"

Once again, the first statement is taken dramatically out of context. Kerry actually said, "I know how disheartened Palestinians are by the Israeli government's decision to build the barrier off of the green line, cutting deep into Palestinian areas. We don't need another barrier to peace." As aides explained in the Jerusalem Post article Giuliani cites, Kerry was describing the route of the fence as a "barrier to peace," not the fence itself.

On Wednesday, Georgia Democratic Senator Zell Miller repeated a number of deceptive claims about Kerry's record on national defense in his keynote address, and also equated Democrats' criticism of President Bush with efforts to weaken America.

He started with the latter, stating, "Now, while young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrat's manic obsession to bring down our Commander in Chief." Regardless of whether Miller believes members of his party have been too harsh in their opposition to President Bush, such attacks do not make America "weaker" - they're an inherent part of the open debate that's necessary for democracy.

Miller went on to repeat a number of misleading charges that Republicans have made before and have been debunked by many commentators (including us), this week and in the past. "Listing all the weapon systems that Senator Kerry tried his best to shut down sounds like an auctioneer selling off our national security but Americans need to know the facts," he stated. He then named six different weapon systems that he claimed Kerry opposed (the B-1 bomber, B-2 bomber, F-14A Tomcat, F-14D, Apache helicopter, and F-15 Eagle), and later insinuated that Kerry had voted against them by stating that "Twenty years of votes can tell you much more about a man than twenty weeks of campaign rhetoric." Miller reinforced this insinuation on CNN later that night when challenged about his claims about Kerry's defense voting record, saying, "What I was talking about was a period of 19 years in the Senate... I have gotten documentation on every single one of those votes that I talked about here today. I've got more documentation here than the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library put together on that."

However, as FactCheck.org has noted, Kerry "tried his best" to shut these weapons systems down only in the sense that he supported canceling them during his first run for the US Senate in 1984. The sole weapons system from Miller's list that Kerry specifically voted against was the B-2 Bomber. A Republican National Committee research briefing that first brought up these charges in February also cited Kerry's votes against large defense appropriations bills in 1990 and 1995 that included funding for these and other weapons systems - Kessler and Dan Morgan reported in the Washington Post that the 1990 vote forms the "crux" of the GOP argument against Kerry. But such bills encompass hundreds of billions of dollars of spending; a vote against one does not indicate opposition to each weapons system it funds.

Miller also said, "Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations." But Kerry said the exact opposite during his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, where he stated, "I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security." The only evidence to back up this claim is an interview Kerry made with the Harvard Crimson in 1971, when, according to the Boston Globe, he said he only wanted US troops "dispersed through the world only at the directive of the United Nations."

Finally, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Ohio), Massachusetts lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, and Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney all parroted a misleading Bush campaign talking point, claiming Kerry voted 98 times for tax increases on the American people while in the Senate. But as Factcheck.org showed, many of these votes were not for legislation increasing taxes and multiple votes were counted toward the total for each of several individual bills (for instance, sixteen votes were counted from Bill Clinton's 1993 economic plan, even though only one was for final passage).

Unfortunately, while a few media outlets attempted to set the record straight, far too many were content to pass on the spin without clarification or context. Without vigorous fact-checking by the press, political deception is all too easy.

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Related links:
-Kerry's service record distorted (Brendan Nyhan, 8/5/04)
-Double-talk on deficit reduction (Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan, 8/5/04)
-Chapter 10 of All the President's Spin on campaign 2004

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