Nothing Sacred

It’s not partisan to point out that Bush’s campaign ads cross a line of decency.

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The ad campaign just kicked off by Bush-Cheney ’04 is the most expensive in election history, but the flap it’s causing has nothing to do with campaign finance. The ads set themselves the difficult task of striking both fear and optimism into viewers — fear of terrorist attacks; optimism that Bush, thanks to his “steady leadership,” is the man to head them off; fear of never working again; optimism that Bush is the man to fix you up with a new job. Reasonable people can — and do — differ on those points, of course. The more vivid controversy centers around Bush’s use of imagery from 9/11. Some firefighters and victims’ families — and, less credibly, Democrats — say the president is exploiting the attacks for political gain.

“Who? Us?” replies Team Bush. “How this administration handled that day, as well as the war on terror, is worthy of discussion,” says the president. The attacks on the ads are so much partisan sniping. Now, of course there’s something to be said for that: It’s only natural for Democrats to jump all over this. And — truth be told — the main firefighters’ union criticizing the ads has endorsed John Kerry. (Although given what many of them went through that day, it’s hard to imagine that partisan politics is all that’s driving their outrage.)

But a lot of victims’ families, without an obvious partisan agenda,
are disgusted and upset, too. Understandably. Bill Doyle, whose son
was one of the 9/11 victims took issue with the ad’s use of World Trade Center images as well as Bush’s claims of foreign policy

“Families are enraged… What I think is distasteful is that the president
is trying to use 9/11 as a springboard for his re-election. It’s entirely wrong. He’s had 3,500 deaths on his
watch, including Iraq.”

And let’s not forget, there’s a huge overlap between victims’ families and firefighters’. Said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters:

disappointed but not surprised that the president would try to trade on the heroism of those firefighters in
the September 11th attacks. The use of 9/11 images are hypocrisy at its worst…

We’re not going to stand for him to put his arm around one of our members on top of a
pile of rubble at Ground Zero during a tragedy and then stand by and watch him cut money for first

Bush super-flack Karen Hughes fired back:

“I can understand why some Democrats might not want the American people to
remember the great leadership and strength that [the] president and First Lady Laura Bush brought to our
country in the aftermath of [9/11]…

Because of that day, we
are at war against terror…The race for president is now on, and it’s important that we look at
how the two candidates would approach that war against terror.”

The Bush campaign has bought $4.5 million worth of ads on cable networks with reports of $6 million more spent on advertisements
on local broadcasts. Most of Bush’s $100 million campaign chest is expected to be blown on ad buys.

(The Democratic National Committee’s budget is a comparatively paltry $16 million, so “shadow party” groups are stepping in. has launched its own $1.9 million, 5-day campaign to counter Bush’s ads.)

The misty-eyed “steady leadership” stuff will soon give way to bare-knuckle brawling as Bush-Cheney goes after Kerry, painting him as an unprincipled flip-flopper and a social liberal with no national security backbone.

Dick Cheney was temporarily sprung from his undisclosed location to hit the TV circuit as the ads rolled out.

In a Fox interview, Cheney said that Kerry:

“…clearly has, over the
years, adopted a series of positions that indicate a desire to cut the defense budget, to cut the intelligence
budget, to eliminate many major weapons programs, to vote against, for example, the first Gulf war
resolution back in 1991, and his inconsistency with respect to Iraq.”

It’s ironic that Bush, whose greatest liability four years ago was his foreign policy inexperience, is now running as a national security president; then again, that’s one thing 9/11 did change. (Four years ago, it’s a safe bet Bush wouldn’t have been able to find Afghanistan on a map. That, for better and worse, is clearly no longer the case.)

And it’s natural that Bush should lean on his national security record given that he has little to crow about on domestic economic front. Indeed, the day after Bush’s ads went on air, the Labor
Department released stats showing that unemployment has remained at 5.6 percent in February and that
only 21,000
new jobs
— not that the 125,000 expected — were created that month.

The disappointing unemployment rate puts in doubt Bush’s claims that the economic recovery is well under way. (By some important measures, it is, but try telling that to the jobless and job-insecure.) In an ad showing happily employed Americans out and about, Bush

“…As the economy grows, the job base grows and somebody who’s looking for work will
be more likely to find a job. I know what we need to do to make sure every person has a chance at realizing
the American dream. I know what we need to do to continue economic growth so people can find work, to
raise the standards at schools so children can learn, to fulfill the promise to America’s seniors.”

Notice that “as the economy grows, the job base grows”; not this time, Mr. President.

As Washington Post‘s media critic, Howard Kurtz, points out:

“While the ad projects the president’s
concern for ordinary Americans in a struggling economy, it is striking in its lack of specifics. There is no
mention of Bush’s tax cuts, his No Child Left Behind law or his prescription-drug program, perhaps in tacit
recognition that these are not viewed as having produced much progress.”

The ad campaign encapsulates the challenge the Bush administration is up against as it seeks to define itself: how to convey that there’s cause for optimism on the economic front when, manifestly, at least if you’re out of work, there isn’t; and how to convey that these are dangerous times that call for steady leadership while also conveying that the president has made the country more secure. As New York Times
columnist Maureen Dowd
points out:

“Mr. Bush continues to imply that we should be scared because we’re not safe, so we
need to keep him to protect our national security. Which seems like a weird contradiction. If he’s so good at
protecting us, why aren’t we safe?”


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