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JONATHAN CHAIT

Red, white and blue herrings

November 05, 2006|JONATHAN CHAIT

I WROTE IN THIS space a week ago that the Republicans were desperate to avoid having Tuesday's election be a referendum on President Bush, Congress or even a comparison between the Republicans and the Democrats. Well, now we can see what they want the election to be: a referendum on John Kerry. When you go to cast your ballot Tuesday, the primary question Karl Rove wants you to have in mind is how much you dislike the guy who ran for president two years ago and lost.

There is no greater testament to the power of the Republican message machine than the fact that, for two days last week, the political news cycle came to be dominated by a bungled Kerry joke. Kerry, according to his prepared remarks, was trying to make a joke about Bush's lack of intellectual curiosity: "Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush." Alas, Kerry wandered off the prepared text and tried to put the joke in his own words. As all of us who survived the 2004 election know, bad things happen when he tries to do that. And so the joke came out: "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

Within moments, the entire apparatus of the Republican Party sprung into motion to convince the public that Kerry had slandered the troops. Bush berated Kerry for not understanding "the consequences of words." George W. Bush, grammar marm. Vice President Dick Cheney called it "another swipe at the U.S. military." Couldn't you just as easily have interpreted that as a swipe against Iraqis? (After all, much of the educated Iraqi middle class has fled the country in the postwar chaos.)

John McCain, continuing his descent into shameless hackery, chimed in: "The suggestion that only the least educated Americans would agree to serve in the military and fight in Iraq is an insult to every soldier serving in combat, and should deeply offend any American with an ounce of appreciation for what they suffer and risk so that the rest of us can sleep more comfortably at night."

Everybody in professional politics, conservative or liberal, understands that Kerry was trying to make a joke about Bush. And yet the GOP has succeeded in convincing the country that he was denigrating American soldiers.

In the classic fashion of political news, media outlets simply covered the "controversy," reporting that Bush insisted Kerry was slamming the troops and that Kerry denied it. Most news stories I saw did not include the prepared text of Kerry's remarks.

The point here isn't that Republicans are liars. Both parties are perfectly willing to shade the truth. The difference is that Republicans have a network of partisan outlets that can create a news story out of thin air. The fact that numerous Democrats have had to denounce Kerry is tribute to the power of this machine.

Consider a point of contrast. J. Dennis Hastert, the Republican who runs the House of Representatives, railroaded through Congress an "earmark" that increased the value of property he owns by several million dollars. Unless you live in Chicago, you probably haven't heard about this story.

But of course not only is Hastert's land deal vastly worse than Kerry's joke (and would be even if Kerry had intended to demean the troops), the more relevant fact is that Hastert, unlike Kerry, is on the ballot this week. And every Republican in the House is going to vote for him for speaker. Yet Kerry is the one dominating the news.

jchait@latimescolumnists.com

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