How to Make Bush Play Defense

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, October 20, 2004; 11:30 AM

Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry appears to have finally embraced one of the more sordid truths of modern political campaigning: The best way to control the message of the day is to force your opponent to respond to a basically groundless attack.

The Bush campaign and its allies have arguably done this on and off since March. Consider, for instance, that Kerry lost most of August responding to Swift-Boat allegations.

Over time, Kerry has fired off all sorts of supportable -- if highly debatable -- charges against President Bush: That Bush erred in shifting his focus from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein; that his administration's economic policies are responsible for job loss; that he led the country into war on false pretenses; that he has no plan to win the peace in Iraq.

On all these issues, Bush returned fire on his own terms.

But in the past few days, after the Kerry camp started peppering Bush with essentially unsupported charges -- that Bush has a secret plan that would gut Social Security and may reinstate the draft -- Bush has felt obliged to respond directly and repeatedly.

Dana Milbank and Lois Romano write in The Washington Post: "President Bush pivoted sharply to domestic issues Tuesday, parrying Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry's charges that the president had bungled the flu-vaccine program and would undermine Social Security in a second term. . . .

"Bush largely dropped the offensive he started Monday against Kerry's credentials on security issues, moving quickly to defend his domestic record and charging that Kerry was willing to make outlandish assertions to win election. . . .

"Bush aides said the president was not being defensive on domestic matters but rather tarring Kerry as a fear-monger using 'old-style scare tactics' and as a candidate who would say anything to get elected -- a charge Bush used effectively against Al Gore four years ago."

Interestingly enough, Bush's defense consisted purely of emphatic assertions, rather than full-bodied explanations.

• "We will keep the promise of Social Security for all our seniors," he said. But he offered no specifics about what he does in fact have in store for Social Security.

• "We will not have a draft; we'll keep the all-volunteer army," he said. But he offered no specifics about how he will deal with the severe stresses currently facing the military.

• "I want to assure them that our government is doing everything possible to help older Americans and children get their shots, despite the major manufacturing defect that caused this problem," he said. But he offered no specifics about what went wrong or what the government's role was or should be in the future.

Here are the transcripts from Bush's speeches in St. Petersburg, New Port Richey and The Villages.

So Much Misleading

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "In their stump speeches and attack ads, the candidates have moved beyond assailing -- critics would say distorting -- their opponents' positions and are setting up straw men that they enthusiastically knock down. They are, some analysts say, campaigning against caricatures. . . .

"From March through August, Bush tried to bury Kerry under a blizzard of attack ads, some of them based on misleading charges, while the Massachusetts senator aired mainly positive ads. Even after turning negative in September, Kerry has pushed the factual envelope less often than the president -- until recently."

Ron Hutcheson and Thomas Fitzgerald write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "With just two weeks until Election Day, Bush and Kerry are trying to swat down false accusations from each other while hurling questionable charges. In the process, each has mischaracterized the other's views.

"Bush, for example, hoping to erode voter faith in Kerry as a commander in chief, often claims that the Massachusetts senator would give foreign nations veto power over U.S. military operations. Kerry has repeatedly said just the opposite.

"Kerry has ignored Bush's views in attacking the president's plans for Social Security and the draft. During a stop Tuesday in Pennsylvania, the state with the second-highest percentage of elderly residents, after Florida, Kerry said Bush was planning an 'all-out assault on Social Security.' "

John Roberts of CBS News reports: "In campaigns, facts are often fuzzy, but now it's almost pure spin. . . .

"But twisting the truth works. Both sides are scrambling to set the record straight with ads and new stump lines. . . .

"And expect the tone from the two campaigns to become even more shrill. For example President Bush has a number of what the White House calls 'major addresses' planned -- events that are really more an opportunity to kick the stuffing out of John Kerry."

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Flu Headache

Yesterday, on the way from St. Petersburg to New Port Richey, the presidential entourage stopped at the Paradise Restaurant in the little town of Safety Harbor, where the president and his brother posed for pictures and were served coffee and baklava. While in the restaurant, a member of the press pool shouted out a question to the president: "Are you accountable for the flu vaccine shortage?"

Bush ignored the question. And reporters were hustled out of the restaurant.

Richard Sisk and Helen Kennedy write in the New York Daily News: "The flu is giving President Bush a headache."

David E. Sanger and Gardiner Harris write in the New York Times: "With polls showing that Florida is once again too close to call, President Bush on Tuesday assured the state's flu-wary retirees that 'we have millions of vaccines doses on hand for the most vulnerable Americans' as his administration said that 2.6 million more doses would be available by January."

Vice President Cheney has suggested that lawsuits against drug manufacturers are partly to blame.

"But Congress in 1986 passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act that largely shields vaccine manufacturers from serious legal liability. Congress voted this year to add flu vaccines to the program, a bill that only awaits President Bush's signature, according to a spokesman for the program," Sanger and Harris write.

"The Vaccine Injury Compensation system provides 'no fault' awards to those injured by vaccines by tapping into a fund created through an excise tax. Mr. Thompson acknowledged those shields, but he said that tort reforms would also help."

Laura Meckler writes for the Associated Press: "For Bush, the issue is much like what a mayor faces when streets go unplowed after a snow storm just before an election, said Robert Blendon, a Harvard pollster who specializes in health issues. . . .

"Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have tried to frame the issue as part of the administration's overall health care agenda, saying it's the threat of lawsuits that keeps manufacturers from entering and staying in the vaccine business.

"But that's only a very small part of the problem, said Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health."

Jonathan Peterson writes in the Los Angeles Times: "One analyst said the vaccine shortage could damage Bush politically. 'It doesn't take any sophistication about politics to grasp the basic point: Not enough vaccine, and it happened on the administration's watch,' said Lawrence Jacobs, director of the 2004 Elections Project for the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

" 'This issue has the potential for becoming the poster child for the Kerry campaign theme that President Bush has dropped the ball.' "

Donna Leinwand writes in an FAQ for USA Today: "Scientists have been predicting such a shortage for years."

What Will They Seize On Next?

This one will make you laugh, or cry, or both.

Bridget Hall Grumet and Colleen Jenkins report in the St. Petersburg Times about the latest screening drama at a Bush event, this one in St. Pete's Sims Park: "Security was tight at the entrance, where guards worked to keep the park free of dissenters. A cartoon sketch copied onto 4-by-6-inch slips of paper became the subject of a brief police investigation.

"The cartoons depicted caricatured, dancing men with dark beards and turbans 'Celebrating a Kerry victory.' Upon inspection, it was apparent the cartoons were pro-Bush. But at first glance it was hard to tell, so authorities didn't take any chances.

"Two New Port Richey police officers went looking for the man passing them out. They didn't find him. Meanwhile, volunteers at the entrance confiscated the cartoons from people as they entered the park.

" 'If you have one of these, you must surrender it before you enter,' volunteer John King told those in line. People shrugged, and handed them over."

No Casualties?

CNN reports: "The founder of the U.S. Christian Coalition said Tuesday he told President George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq that he should prepare Americans for the likelihood of casualties, but the president told him, 'We're not going to have any casualties.'

"Pat Robertson, an ardent Bush supporter, said he had that conversation with the president in Nashville, Tennessee, before the March 2003 invasion. He described Bush in the meeting as 'the most self-assured man I've ever met in my life.' "

His comments came in an interview with Paula Zahn.

Karl Rove Watch

Salon held a caption contest yesterday for this photo of Karl Rove, laying down in front of the wheels of Air Force One on Monday. (See yesterday's column for what passes for an explanation.)

The winner: "Let's roll."

Speaking of Rove, Alan Freeman writes in the Globe and Mail of Canada: "With less than two weeks until election day and opinion polls showing the race too close to call, it's crunch time for the likes of Karl Rove.

"The cherubic-looking strategist, the brains behind President George W. Bush's re-election bid, has been running Republican campaigns since he was a college student 30 years ago and has a reputation for doing whatever it takes to win."

And Jonathan Turley writes in an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune: "Where Dwight Eisenhower had the Military-Industrial Complex and Richard Nixon had the Trilateral Commission, George Bush has Karl Rove. If you take all of the conspiracies involving one world order, United Nations black helicopters, fluoridation as mind-control, and Hillary Clinton, and roll them into a pear-shaped figure, you get Karl Rove for liberals."

Intel Watch

Charles Babington and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "With House-Senate negotiators scheduled today to start resolving major differences in two bills to restructure the nation's intelligence community, the White House has criticized key portions of each plan and left some lawmakers wondering how they can meet a self-imposed deadline of finishing the work before the Nov. 2 election."

Here's the White House letter.

Stumping for the Boss?

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 2 election, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice has traveled across the country making speeches in key battleground states, including Oregon, Washington, North Carolina and Ohio. In the next five days, she also plans speeches in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida. . . .

"The frequency and location of her speeches differ sharply from those before this election year -- and appear to break with the long-standing precedent that the national security adviser try to avoid overt involvement in the presidential campaign. Her predecessors generally restricted themselves to an occasional speech, often in Washington, but counting next week's speeches, Rice will have made nine outside Washington since Labor Day."

Al Kamen, in his Washington Post column, writes: "The star of the Cabinet, in terms of spreading the good word on President Bush's economic policies, has been Treasury Secretary John W. 'Battleground' Snow.

"Since Aug. 6, Snow has given 21 speeches or chats outside the Beltway. Seven of them have been in Ohio -- sparking rumors, hotly denied, that he has rented an apartment in downtown Massillon for the duration.

"In fact, 19 of his 21 speeches or chats outside Washington have been in battleground states (the other two were in New York City). . . .

"Sometimes things don't go so well, such as when Snow spoke in Ohio about a 'myth' that fewer people are employed in the U.S. today than four years ago. The Kerry folks jumped all over that one. Snow backed away."

In fact, Alan Murray wrote in his Wall Street Journal column yesterday: "If George Bush loses in Ohio, he can blame Treasury Secretary John Snow."

Meanwhile, another member of the cabinet was maybe a little off message yesterday as well.

Randal C. Archibold writes in the New York Times: "Attorney General John Ashcroft suggested in a speech before the United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington that Providence was partly responsible for the United States' freedom from another attack since Sept. 11, 2001.

" 'For three years, our nation has been blessed,' Mr. Ashcroft said. 'But the hand of Providence has been assisted by the dedicated men and women of the Department of Justice. In three years, we have compiled a record of achievement that is impressive by peacetime standards.' "

Where's That Report?

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The ranking members of the House Intelligence Committee have asked the CIA to turn over an internal report on whether agency employees should be held accountable for intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks, congressional officials said Tuesday.

"The CIA has not responded to the request, raising concerns among some Democrats in Congress that the report is being withheld to avoid embarrassment for the Bush administration in the final weeks before the presidential election."

Columnist Robert Scheer broke the story on the LA Times' op-ed page yesterday.

Cheney Watch

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times from Xenia, Ohio: "The lights go out and the speakers start pumping out drum-pounding, can't-stop-dancing electronic music. The cheers of the crowd turn to full-throated shouts. The spotlight finds the campaign bus arriving at livestock pavilion No. 3 at the Greene County Fair and Expo Center. And out ambles the 63-year-old candidate, professorial in herringbone brown and tasseled oxblood slip-ons, his shoulders hunched forward.

"This is Vice President Dick Cheney on the campaign trail. The song is 'Get Ready for This,' by techno band 2 Unlimited. He looks like he'd prefer Mozart.

"And yet day after day, from West Virginia to Pennsylvania, in Minnesota and Nevada, the vice president has proven to be an effective instrument of the Bush campaign."

And Gerstenzang writes: "Cheney on Tuesday continued to express dismay about Kerry's mention in the final presidential debate that Mary Cheney, one of the vice president's daughters, is a lesbian. . . .

" 'Mary is a private person. . . . I think she shared our sense that this was not appropriate,' the vice president told Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity on Tuesday."

Today's Calendar

Bush flies to Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin today.

He'll speak at a campaign rally at the North Iowa Fairgrounds in Mason City, Iowa; lead a "Focus on the Economy with President Bush" event in Rochester, Minn.; then attend a "Focus on Rural America with President Bush" event in Eau Claire, Wis.

Upcoming Interview

ABC News's The Note has something for you to put on your calendar: "Charlie Gibson's exclusive interview with President Bush on next Monday's "Good Morning America" (Just to be clear -- this one IS happening!!! -- and it's his only morning interview before the election.)"

I guess there are no hard feelings from the second debate.

Debate Redux

Lisa Falkenberg writes for the Associated Press: "Former President Bush is confident that his son won the final two presidential debates against John Kerry, but he acknowledged Tuesday that his son's heavily criticized performance in the first debate was a little hard to watch."

Who's Scaring Who?

Rick Pearson writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Even as President Bush assailed Sen. John Kerry's campaign for resorting to 'old-style scare tactics' in warning of Social Security benefit cuts and a military draft, Vice President Dick Cheney questioned Tuesday whether Kerry could deal with the threat of terrorists using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in the nation's biggest cities."

Martin Kasindorf and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today: "Scare talk shivered through the fast-closing presidential campaign Tuesday."

More Black Vote for Bush?

Darryl Fears writes in The Washington Post: "A significant number of black Americans -- 18 percent -- said they are willing to vote for President Bush, even though his job-approval ratings in the community are quite low, according to a national opinion survey released yesterday by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an African American think tank.

"In a hypothetical match-up between the presidential candidates, black Americans favored Sen. John F. Kerry to Bush, 69 to 18 percent, the survey said. But the 18 percent for Bush is 10 percentage points higher than the president's vote total in exit polling among this population in the 2000 election."

Here is that survey.

Bulge Watch

Albert Eisele and Jeff Dufour write in The Hill: "The battle of the bulge is over, and President Bush has won it, according to his tailor. . . .

"Actually, it's perfectly normal, said [Georges] de Paris, even among the very expensive suits he makes. The French-born tailor makes all of Bush's suits, including the one he wore at the first debate. 'The same thing will happen anytime you cross your arms like Bush did,' de Paris said. 'It causes the back of the jacket to pucker along the seam.'

"To prove it, de Paris helped a reporter into a 44 long jacket, the same size both the president and the reporter wear, and had him cross his arms. The accompanying photograph shows the result, which appears to produce the same bulge."

Well, it's not exactly the same. But it is similar.

Bubble Watch

Washington Post op-ed columnist Harold Meyerson calls attention to something Nicholas Lemann wrote in the New Yorker last week:

"Bob Woodward told me that, during an interview he conducted with Bush in December, 2001, he asked the President whether he ever sought advice about the war on terror from distinguished figures outside his Administration, such as Brent Scowcroft, his father's national-security adviser. Woodward told me that Bush said to him, 'I have no outside advice. Anybody who says they're an outside adviser of this Administration on this particular matter is not telling the truth. First of all, in the initial phase of this war, I never left the compound. Nor did anybody come in the compound. I was, you talk about one guy in a bubble.' "

'West Wing' Watch

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times that "West Wing" is back tonight.

"The prolongation of one of the best and most popular dramas on television is brave and at times bold, but often it is painful to watch."

And, she notes, "There is a lot of wishful Democratic thinking. The president refuses to attack targets in Iran until the intelligence community can dig up 'credible, verifiable evidence' that Iran was complicit in the Gaza bombings."

Late Night Humor

From "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," via the Associated Press: "Over the weekend, President Bush told a crowd of supporters in Florida that he is the best protection from the draft. That's not true. Bush's dad was the protection from the draft."

© 2004