February 19, 2004
A puzzlement

Last week Peter lamented that politics are bumming him out:

Well, in addition to the developing Bush going AWOL during his National Guard stint story, we now have a John Kerry sex scandal making its way up through the media food chain.

In the immortal words of Amy Welborn: I. Hate. This.

He's not the only one who's sick of dirty politics, of course. But the usual defense of mudslinging is that it works. Gotta do it if your opponent's doing it, and all that.

I wonder, though, how much it really does work. The dirtiest political episode in my memory was the Clinton impeachment, and while it must remain speculation whether Clinton could have won in 2000 if he'd had no term limits, he survived it remarkably well. Just as he survived the Gennifer Flowers episode in the '92 primary.

Of course, Clinton was an amazingly bulletproof politician, and Kerry's opponents probably figure he isn't. Plus incumbency is a big advantage: by the time Lewinsky came along, Clinton had been president for five years. It's different when people are just getting to know somebody. I guess there's Gary Hart's example, though politically that seems like a looong time ago.

Which brings me to the Bush AWOL scandal. I really don't get that. There seems to have been some draft-dodging scandal in every presidential election I remember, and it failed to derail anybody. In '88, there was a minor flap because Dan Quayle joined the National Guard instead of going to 'Nam, and it died fast. Then Clinton had his own flap in '92, but went on to beat two WWII vets in succession. Then in the 2000 primary, former National Guardsman G.W. Bush ran against war hero John McCain, and beat him. Even without the AWOL problem, he evaded real combat, but few cared.

I mean, I understand why going AWOL would reflect poorly on him, but I don't understand whose vote it's supposed to change. I could sort of understand rooting around in the distant past in 2000, when Bush had such a short political record and you had to try to discern his character from other sources. But we don't have to guess what kind of president Bush would be: we know! We don't have to speculate how he'd act in a crisis or a war: we know that too! If somebody likes the way Bush has been governing the last three years, what difference could a 30-year-old scandal possibly make? The only current issue that I see in it is that if he did go AWOL, he lied about it. But another lesson the Clinton impeachment seemed to tell us is that Americans will forgive a false answer to a question they don't think should have been asked.

Josh Marshall wrote last week that he thinks Bush's recent dip in the polls is because after David Kay's statements, people are no longer cutting him slack about the missing WMDs. Josh thinks this makes them slow on the uptake, but this does reassure me that the public at least has its priorities straight. That seems like a much better reason to vote against a president than what he did as a budding young alcoholic way back when.

However, I don't cover politics in my job, and I hardly have my finger on the pulse of American politics. So I'm curious, readers: does Bush's behavior in the Guard have any effect on your vote, or that of anyone you know? If so, why? (I ask about affecting votes specifically because saying, "I already hated Bush, and this makes me hate him worse" only underscores my point.)

Posted by Camassia at February 19, 2004 04:10 PM | TrackBack

Neither Bush's Nat'l Guard situation nor the Kerry rumor will affect my vote one iota.

Posted by: tso on February 20, 2004 10:47 AM

Bush is Satan's sock puppet. His specifics are individually irrelevant. Don't vote for him.

Posted by: Rob on February 21, 2004 06:52 AM

Draft-dodging scandals (whether about Bush, or Clinton, or Quayle) make more sense to me than a lot of the stuff that gets dragged out about politicians; at least it is something the politician has actually done, as an adult (if a young one), which is on public record. So, it's a better thing to talk about than, oh, the twins' fake IDs (wow! I never knew anyone who did that!), or Dean's wife's not going on the campaign trail with him (of course, it's so important that the First Lady follow her husband around with just the proper amount of adoration), or the fact that Kerry's wife is rich (there's a rule that says that men have to be richer than their wives?).

On the other hand, I can't think of any case where it has actually changed my vote; I always know enough about the person's later record which counts more, that I'm either going to vote for him anyway, or not vote for him anyway, regardless of what he did back then.

Sex scandals I ignore on principle, because I don't think it's moral to be dragging out people's secret sins (even aside from the fact that such rumors inevitably also hit people who are innocent, such as, apparently, in this case, Kerry). And I don't think it's necessary, since their public records adequately show what their character will likely be, as President.

But there is one case where negative campaigning did change my vote, and should have, and was entirely appropriate: we had a judge on our local ballot, unopposed, who got arrested for possessing child pornography, just after the deadline for putting anyone else on the ballot. There was a write-in campaign, and he got only a third of the vote (presumably those people who hadn't heard the story, saw only one name on the ballot, and punched it).

Other than that, I can't actually think of a scandal that changed my vote.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on February 21, 2004 09:54 AM

Hmm, that does seem like a good reason not to vote for a judge! I do think that negative campaigning has its uses. There just seems to be this conventional wisdom these days that any old scandal will do, it doesn't really matter how important it is or what the circumstances are. And (in case Rob was worried about this) I would like to see Bush defeated this November, so I'm worried this is a giant wrong turn for the Democrats to spend their time and energy on this. A lot of political bloggers I respect are going at this like it's Watergate II, and I don't get what they're thinking.

Posted by: Camassia on February 21, 2004 11:39 AM

I agree with you that the National Guard thing is not worth focussing the Democrat campaign on. That was, in fact, the message I meant to convey with my (perhaps) hyperbolic post above. There is so much wrong with Bush which is so much more important than how he got out of serving in Viet Nam, that to thrash that dead horse is stupid.

Posted by: Rob on February 21, 2004 12:12 PM

The problem with Bush's service record is the blatant hypocrisy. Calling himself the "war president", the Abraham Lincoln incident, and categorizing every Democrat who didn't pander to every policy initiative after 911 "unpatriotic" is simply not acceptable to any thinking and feeling person in light of his own reprehensible record when it was his turn for duty. And yes it looks as if he may have weathered the storm again. It was not however a waste of time for the press follow the story. The more the hypocrisy of this person and these people are exposed the better.

Posted by: harv on February 21, 2004 07:54 PM

Well, I can't help thinking of Lynn's post about hypocrisy and wondering what consistency would look like ("All soldiers now in the field, flake off!"). But seriously, this is another line whose effectiveness I don't see unless you're talking to someone who's already anti-Bush. Like it or not, Bush became a military leader when he was sworn in, and he is a war president. If you dislike his leadership then the AWOL thing makes it extra irritating, but if you like it then you can chalk it up to "growth." That's why I think, as Josh's poll indicated, the important subject is Bush's current behavior. People will interpret the AWOL story according to what they already believe about that.

I admit I'm speculating, but the larger point I'm trying to make with the post is that swinging the election would mean entering the mindset of people whose feeling toward Bush is ambivalent or mildly pro, and seeing what moves them. I worry that the inability to do that is what alienates moderates like Peter. Harv, you haven't said if this actually changed your opinion of Bush, but without further info I'm filing it under the "made me hate Bush even more" heading.

Posted by: Camassia on February 22, 2004 08:57 AM
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