Desperately seeking Plumbers

It might almost be comical to watch pundits scramble to accuse the Kerry campaign of fear-mongering, if their arguments were not so well coordinated. William Safire (Source: NYT 10/20/04) suspiciously repeats David Brooks' accusations of fear-mongering (on social security, stem cell research, the draft, and the Mary Cheney non-issue (Safire replaces the last with a "flu crisis" argument)) (Source: NYT 10/19/04). As was said yesterday in this space: "It’s not worth it to descend into the fray on the merits of these points." And given the bar set by Dick Cheney for cynical fear-mongering this year– "If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again: that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States"–it's hard for anyone to get themselves terribly upset by the Kerry campaign's legitimate political concerns. Perhaps this is the reason that the Mary Cheney story seems to trump even these substantive issues that could be debated. The consistency between the two is at least clear. They are both parts of a concerted attempt to paint Kerry as an opportunistic and unscrupulous politician unfairly attacking the president. The fact that there are good reasons to be concerned about these four points of policy is irrelevant for Brooks and Safire: They need only caricature the arguments to draw the conclusion that they want to draw about John Kerry's motivations and character. It is an interesting argument for a number of reasons. The pundits take an articulated and reasonable concern about Bush's policy or intentions, replace it with a straw man caricature that seems so baseless and perverse that the only reasonable inference must be that Kerry is unscrupulously attacking the president. For example, Safire writes:

You a youngster? The fearmongers noticed an urban legend floating around the Internet about a "January surprise" to bring back the draft and throw you into the first wave into Falluja. Never mind that it won't happen, because the military knows that a volunteer army works best; the scare tactic is sure to whip up the old fears in the young voters.

I'm not sure how Paul Krugman feels about his columns being described as "an urban legend floating around the Internet," but the attempt to trivialize the argument by impugning its source is transparent and not worth taking seriously. Safire also offers a reason for rejecting the likelihood of the draft–that the military doesn't want it because a volunteer army works best. (Compare with Brooks' even sillier claim "Given the nature of military technology, it doesn't make sense to bring back the draft.") But clearly, the concern with the draft is not unfounded and rhetorical. Krugman offers a clear and rigorous argument for worrying about the draft. It certainly does not prove that there will be a draft, but instead argues that (a) there is a severe shortage of soldiers at present, (b) we are already "conscripting" soldiers against their will through various "backdoor" mechanisms, and (c) whether by Bush's choice or not we cannot rule out the possibility that we will need more troops during a second Bush term (Source: NYT 10/19/04). But neither Brooks nor Safire want to engage in the debate about the issue. Their interest in the point is only to represent it as a baseless argument, which allows them to bring into question Kerry's motivations (despite Brooks' denial–"I'm not trying to make a moral point here about sleazy campaigning"–a classic rhetorical move, "praeteritio" in which you mention something by stating that you are not going to mention it: "I am not going to dirty the campaign by talking about my opponent's felony conviction." This allows you both to claim the moral highground while simultaneously engaging in the negative attack). To do this, they represent the arguments underlying these policy concerns as entirely empty and trivial. This is to commit the "straw man" fallacy. I had originally intended to address Safire's editorial about Mary Cheney (Source: NYT 10/18/04) The same analysis holds for this argument, even if it is not aimed at a policy dispute. In essence, the mention of Cheney's daughter's sexual preferences is taken as a sign of the campaign's unscrupulous tactics. Safire argues that (a) the mention was calculated and deliberate, (b) it was revelatory to the public at large, (c) it's purposes were cynical and political. Even granting both (a) and (b) (which if we were concerned with evaluating the truth of these premises would give us significant pause as Safire gives little reason to be persauded of these two claims. See Media Matters for a discussion of this.), there is little to worry about until we consider the justification for (c). This is twofold:

One purpose was to drive a wedge between the Republican running mates. President Bush supports a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a union of a man and a woman; Cheney has long been on record favoring state option, but always adds that the president sets administration policy. That rare divergence of views is hardly embarrassing.

The sleazier purpose of the Kerry-Edwards spotlight on Mary Cheney is to confuse and dismay Bush supporters who believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, to suggest that Bush is as "soft on same-sex" as Kerry is, and thereby to reduce a Bush core constituency's eagerness to go to the polls. If these were the motivations, then perhaps Brooks was right yesterday to question the Kerry campaign's competency. Fortunately, Safire saves the Kerry campaign from Brooks' accusation by quoting Margaret Carlson's analysis:

[they] "realize that discussing Mary Cheney is a no-lose proposition: It highlights the hypocrisy of the Bush-Cheney position to Democrats while simultaneously alerting evangelicals to the fact that the Cheneys have an actual gay person in their household whom they apparently aren't trying to convert or cure."

This is a much more plausible explanation of their motivations: Unfortunately for Safire it isn't "sleazy" or unreasonable. It is clear, and almost uncontroversial, that part of the Republican strategy for this election has been to motivate the homophobic members of its base by foregrounding the specter of gay marriage spreading from Massachusetts into the heartland. Thus, highlighting the hypocrisy underlying this pandering is not at all unreasonable or immoral. In fact, the only way to suggest that it is immoral is to paint Mary Cheney as a victim of scurrilous attacks: Hence Lynn Cheney's aggrieved mother act. Unfortunately, Mary Cheney is an out homosexual who has worked for the campaign. She is not a poor defenseless child, but in fact a political operative. There is little reason to cast this tactic–even granting the truth of Safire's premises–as "cheap and tawdry." Certainly Safire's suggestion that this amounts to a "dirty trick" borders on the comical when we compare it with the tactics of his old boss's Plumbers.