Reply to Sandefur on Political Lies

Timothy Sandefur has once again taken me to task, this time about my post concerning the Bush campaign's consistent distortions of things said by John Kerry. It hardly needs to be said that I have enormous respect for Sandefur. Not only do I think he's one of the best bloggers around, I also think that he is on his way to becoming an important and influential constitutional scholar. But here I think he is either misunderstanding, or unintentionally oversimplifying, my views on the matter in at least two respects. First, in his understanding of the point of my earlier entry. He states:

Ed Brayton says the Bush campaign "[is] a coordinated strategy of lying to gain votes. The Democrats do much the same thing, of course, but this particular type of dishonesty they have never been able to do nearly as shamelessly as the Bush campaign, which makes a living off of it." (Emphasis added). This is astounding! When Cheney says that he and Edwards had never met before, Kerry's media allies instantly scrape up moments when they met briefly at ceremonial functions, and splash these moments all over their news sites to portray Cheney as an out-and-out liar. They spin the recent Iraq report as though the fact that Hussein had no stockpiles of WMDs is somehow news. They treat Michael Moore as though he were a serious reporter of the facts....When the Bush campaign lies, they are called on it instantaneously. But Kerry says for twenty years that he was in Cambodia, and it turns out to be a lie, and he gets more or less a pass on the issue. He refuses even to have press conferences--and nobody calls him on it. I understand that Brayton thinks Bush is a bad president and is running the War badly, but for godsake, to claim that the Kerry campaign is "not able to lie as shamelessly" as Bush is sheer blindness.

But it needs to be understood that my article had nothing whatsoever to do with the media and how it covers the candidates, nor did it have to do with lying in general. Both campaigns spew lies on a daily basis, a fact I would never deny and have frequently said myself. My post concerned one specific type of lie, distorting the words of one's opponent to make them appear to say something different than they were intended, and I gave 3 examples of such lies being told quite prominently in this campaign by the Bush campaign. And further than that, I pointed out that this was obviously a large part of their actual campaign strategy and that it was coordinated from the top by Rove.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Kerry has exaggerated his military record, that he has often distorted the truth in his campaign (exaggerating the job losses, for example). I've pointed out some of those lies myself. But in this post, I was addressing one particular type of lie. I did not, contrary to Sandefur's assertion, claim that the Kerry campaign hasn't been able to lie as shamelessly, but that they have not engaged in this particular type of dishonesty (the phrase I actually used in the passage he cited, which should have made clear that I was not talking about lying in general, but a specific kind of lie) with anything like the regularity or ferocity that the Bush campaign has done so. In fact, I can't think of a single example of the Kerry campaign distorting Bush's campaign speeches to make them appear to say something different than they do. Which doesn't mean it hasn't happened, of course, I might simply have missed them, but I could not have missed them if, like the Bush campaign, it had been such a common and integral part of their campaign strategy.

Sandefur does not deny that the examples I offered were accurate. In fact, he agrees with me that Kerry's words are being misrepresented by the Bush campaign in at least one case, and did not address the other two that I mentioned. Nor does he dispute, given the fact that literally dozens of campaign and administration officials who have been seen using the same distortions in the same words in every imaginable forum, all in sync, that this is part of a coordinated and deliberate campaign to convince the public that Kerry has said entirely different things than he has in fact said. So what exactly is his beef with what I said? I think this is the essence of it:

Brayton is always willing to instantly see everything the Bush campaign does in the worst possible light--and to see everything the Kerry campaign does in the best possible light, and with every benefit of every doubt. (Witness his reluctance to admit the obvious fraud regarding the memos.)

But here again, he is either misunderstanding or oversimplifying my position. First, it is obviously false that I see everything the Kerry campaign does in the best possible light. If I saw them in the best possible light, I would believe their campaign rhetoric, wouldn't I? That is obviously the best possible light. Second, I have stated many times that I think Kerry has exaggerated his war record, that his campaign promises don't add up, that I think he is a spineless politician who changes positions every time the polls change on an issue, and that as a result there is no reason to trust what he says his position is on any issue because he'd promise you the moon if he thought it would get him votes. I've also said explicitly that I will not be voting for him. Does this sound like someone who is giving Kerry "every benefit of every doubt"? Not by a longshot.

Now, as it regards my "reluctance to admit the obvious fraud regarding the memos", bear in mind when that post was written. It was written when the question of whether the memos were authentic was still entirely an open question. At that point in time, there was a lot of accusations being made, primarily on Powerline blog, but most of those accusations weren't terribly compelling. At the time, the claims of forgery rested on a set of arguments that turned out to be false (i.e. that no typewriter in 1973 could type in superscript or could do proportional spacing), even while the memos were later shown to be fakes. My argument, on that day, was that it was simply too early to be making bold statements either way. Indeed, that is exactly what I said, criticizing the "absolute certainty on both sides" and saying that, at the very least, judgement should be reserved until the authentication tests done by the experts that CBS consulted were made available.

A few days after that, it was revealed that CBS had done a very poor job of authenticating the documents and that some of the experts they consulted had raised questions about their authenticity. At that point, it became reasonable to say with a high degree of certainty that the memos were forged. But on September 10th, when I wrote that post, my admonitions against the certainty being shown by both sides in the argument were dead-on accurate. I did not take that position because I wanted to give Kerry the benefit of the doubt but because I believe one should examine all the evidence thoroughly before reaching a conclusion (remember that on that day, no one had any idea what authentication tests had been done on the memos). And frankly, I'm surprised that someone whose work is done as carefully and meticulously as Mr. Sandefur's work is done doesn't recognize the difference.

An attorney who argued for a conclusion in court with such certainty, at such an early point, based on nothing but suspect accusations, and without ever examining the evidence itself or previous attempts to authenticate it, would quickly find himself out of a job. At the time I wrote that post, the accusations of forgery were interesting possibilities that deserved to be investigated, not a solid basis for a certain conclusion by any stretch of the imagination. And that is exactly what I said at the time, and justifiably so.

To be fair, I should say that Timothy is not the first one to tell me that I should talk more about Kerry's lies and distortions. Lynn tells me this fairly regularly. I don't deny that I tend to focus more on Bush's faults than Kerry's, but I don't think it is at all reasonable to claim that I just blindly accept everything Kerry says or that I give him the benefit of the doubt on the things he says. On the contrary, I don't think there's much reason to believe anything that Kerry says and I've said so many times. But that doesn't mean that it's okay to distort what he does say to make it sound as though he said something different. And I do take the position, whether anyone other than Dan Ray wants to agree with me or not, that the Bush campaign team is a whole lot "better" - meaning more shameless and aggressive - at this particular type of dirty trick.

So why, since I believe that both major parties are dishonest and corrupt to the core and since I don't believe anything that Kerry says, do I have such a special antipathy for President Bush? Well, let me spell it out. I frankly am embarrassed by the fact that Bush represents my nation. I find it appalling that a man who is barely in command of his own native language is the most powerful man in the world, and I find it even more appalling that so many bright and well educated people aren't bothered by that. In addition, I am more disturbed by Bush's core political constituency than I am by any other group in our political system. Bush's core is made up of fundamentalists and he appeals to them in the most base and simplistic ways, pushing authoritarian and bigoted policies like the Federal Marriage Amendment. I think that he is, essentially, a subsidiary of the religious right, and there is nothing that draws my ire more than that. Kerry is certainly dishonest, spineless and corrupt, but he at least doesn't have to appease the most ignorant and reactionary among us to insure his election (And yes, I'm fully aware that one can aim criticisms at Kerry's core constituents as well, but I'm pointing out the elements that I personally react to). And having said all that, I'm still not voting for Kerry.


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