Despite claims pro and con, the jury is still very much out (2/12)

By Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan
Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Did President Bush honor his obligations in the National Guard? Though partisans are claiming otherwise, the evidence is murky.

The issue, last raised during the 2000 campaign, surfaced again recently after filmmaker Michael Moore referred to Bush in January as a "deserter" and Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe claimed on Feb. 1 that Bush "was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard." (Read the whole column.)

(Each Thursday, Spinsanity's weekly column appears on the commentary page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Details of the arrangement can be found here.)

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2/12/2004 09:01:47 AM EST |

AP error is latest falsehood about Kerry (2/12)

By Brendan Nyhan

In the latest in a string of falsehoods about Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Associated Press ran a story last night incorrectly headlined "Kerry Signed Letter Backing Gay Marriage."

In fact, as the article makes clear in its first paragraph, the letter that Kerry signed was to urge members of the Massachusetts legislature to oppose an amendment to the state constitution "outlawing homosexual nuptials." The actual letter reads as follows:

We rarely comment on issues that are wholly within the jurisdiction of the General Court, but there are occasions when matters pending before you are of such significance to all residents of the Commonwealth that we think it appropriate for us to express our opinion.
One such matter is the proposed Constitutional amendment that would prohibit or seriously inhibit any legal recognition whatsoever of same-sex relationships. We believe it would be a grave error for Massachusetts to enshrine in our Constitution a provision, which would have such a negative effect on so many of our fellow residents. We in Massachusetts are justly proud of our Constitution, one of the first documents on this continent to set forward a system of self-government, which has not only served us well, but has been a model for others. The proposal to add to that document -- essentially a charter of liberty and democracy -- a provision as harsh both in its intent and its effect on our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered constituents is in conflict with the generous spirit that motivated its adoption, and that should continue to govern us today.
In addition, as legislators, we believe it would be a terrible mistake to write into our Constitution so sweeping a proposal with the likelihood that it will prevent not only the state government, but also the cities, towns and counties from acting as they might wish to provide some form of recognition for same-sex relationships. We are therefore united in urging you to reject this Constitutional amendment and avoid stigmatizing so many of our fellow citizens who do not deserve to be treated in such a manner.

It was signed by Kerry, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-MA, and a number of congressmen from the state.

The AP's headline is completely false. Opposing a ban on gay marriage does not amount to support for gay marriage. Nor is there any indication in the article that Kerry has ever supported gay marriage. Allowing cities, towns and counties to act "as they might wish to provide some form of recognition" is not an endorsement of gay marriage specifically; there are many forms of legal recognition for same-sex couples, including civil unions (which Kerry does support), that are not equivalent to marriage. The language Kerry backed only suggests that local governments be allowed to provide such recognition if they choose.

The AP story (which is dated 6:05 PM EST on Yahoo News) has been distributed to a number of news websites and was also touted in a banner headline on the Drudge Report website. However, later versions of the story have run under accurate headlines, suggesting that the damage from the error may be contained.

Journalists have distorted the facts about Kerry on two other recent occasions. In the Feb. 9 issue of the Weekly Standard, Matthew Continetti quoted from a supposed internal Kerry campaign memo:

In November 2003, Jim Jordan, John Kerry's departing campaign manager, sent a memo to his replacement, Mary Beth Cahill. The memo, which was leaked to ABC News, provides an insider's look at the Kerry campaign. "You'll be tempted to ask the research shop to get you a memo on The Candidate's achievements in Congress," Jordan wrote. "Save yourself some time and don't."

As the Standard explained in an amusing correction in its Feb. 16 issue, however, "the memo was a satirical parody written by the political staff of ABC News." Indeed, a close look at the so-called "memo" reveals how absurd it is that Continetti thought it was real. It is full of wry one-liners such as "Make some sort of deal with a Boston-area milk company to get Michael Whouley's picture on cartons [Whouley is a Kerry field operative]. We have to find the guy."

Finally, as Nick Confessore wrote in Tapped, Washington Times editor Wes Pruden also distorted a Kerry quote, writing:

John Kerry's military record, lieutenant or not, has so far made him a sentimental favorite with many veterans, but it's a military record that won't withstand the scrutiny that's coming. His slander of the GIs he left behind in Vietnam is not yet well known.
"They ... raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power," he told a Senate committee in 1971 when he was just home from the war, and "cut off limbs, [blew] up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam."
Miserable lies, and he never produced evidence or repudiated the lies. Americans tolerate a lot of hyperbole in election season, but stuff like this will unhorse even a Botox man.

As Confessore showed, Pruden failed to note that Kerry had attributed those allegations to the testimony of other soldiers during what was known as the "Winter Soldier Investigation." Here are Kerry's actual words in context:

I would like to talk on behalf of all those veterans and say that several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit -- the emotions in the room and the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.
They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

With Kerry leading the race to capture his party's nomination, the pressure on the media to generate provocative stories about him and his record is intense. A stronger measure of caution and attention to accuracy will clearly be needed, or these errors will be just the beginning.

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Related links:
-Spinsanity on attacks on Sen. John Kerry
-Spinsanity on Sen. John Kerry

2/11/2004 08:42:46 PM EST |

Bush continues economic dishonesty (2/9)

By Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan

During his appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday, President Bush continued what has been one of the hallmarks of his administration - the misleading use of statistics about budget and economic issues.

Asked about conservatives who have criticized increases in spending under his administration, Bush said:

Well, they're wrong. If you look at the appropriations bills that were passed under my watch, in the last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and ours have steadily declined.

Bush's reference to "appropriations bills," rather than actual government outlays, indicates that he is referring to the annual totals of spending Congress has authorized through the appropriations process. (For more on this distinction, see Jonathan Weisman's Washington Post article from December.) However, rates of growth in so-called discretionary budget authority have not declined in a linear manner under Bush. According to statistics in the President's fiscal year 2005 budget (208K PDF - see table S-2), total discretionary budget authority provided by Congress (including supplemental appropriations) rose by 13.6 percent in 2001, 10.7 percent in 2002 and 15.6 percent in 2003. (Note: Discretionary spending is different from entitlement spending for programs like Social Security or Medicare, which is automatically determined under program rules.)

The President appears to have meant to exclude homeland security and defense spending, a qualification his administration has often made in its calculations. As Kevin Drum pointed out on the blog CalPundit, Bush's budget (see table S-2 again) shows figures for non-defense, non-homeland security spending authorizations (excluding supplemental appropriations) that are more in line with his statement - 14.9 percent in fiscal year 2001, 6.0 percent in 2002, 5.4 percent in 2003 and 4.0 percent so far in 2004. This appears to be the source of Bush's 15 percent figure. (The numbers change somewhat when supplemental appropriations are included.) These data come closer to justifying the President's assertion that discretionary spending increases have slowed under his watch, but the difference between total discretionary spending and non-defense, non-homeland security discretionary spending is important and one Bush should have specified.

This is not his only recent omission on budget matters from the President. As the Daily Mislead noted last Monday, Bush answered a reporter's question about the deficit on February 2 by stating, "The reason we are where we are, in terms of the deficit, is because we went through a recession, we were attacked, and we're fighting a war." This was echoed in the Budget Message of the President released on the same day.

This statement misses one of the largest causes of the deficit: tax cuts. According to an analysis from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities using data from the Joint Committee on Taxation, the total cost in fiscal 2003 of the three tax cuts passed since President Bush took office was $166 billion. That represents 44 percent of last year's $374 billion deficit, a sizable figure for the President to leave out of his formulation. He has done it repeatedly before, however, as has Vice President Dick Cheney.

These statements should be considered alongside the administration's public relations offensive on behalf of Bush's "plan" to cut the deficit in half by 2009, which as we noted last week meets its goal only by leaving out a number of significant costs. Taken together, it's clear that George W. Bush is systematically attempting to mislead the public on economic issues. And despite the many critics who have exposed his tactics, there appears to be no end in sight.

Correction (2/10 12:13 PM EST): In its original form, this post mischaracterized a table in President Bush's fiscal year 2005 budget. It has been substantially rewritten for clarity. We regret the error.

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Related links:
-When is a plan not really a plan? (Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan, 2/5/04) [published in the Philadelphia Inquirer]
-Cheney dissembles about taxes, deficits and more (Ben Fritz, 9/17/03)
-Bush distorts taxes and deficits once again (Ben Fritz, 9/12/03)

2/9/2004 01:18:55 PM EST |