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Competing gotcha politics keep campaign an idea-free zone

By W. James Antle III
web posted May 3, 2004

If you were hoping for a detailed debate of the weighty issues facing the country during this presidential election, better luck next time. Forget Iraq, terrorism, the deficit, taxes, jobs, immigration or marriage. The apparatchiks of the two major presidential campaigns – apologies to Ralph Nader - have decided this would be an opportune time to re-fight the Vietnam War.

Did John Kerry throw the Bronze Star he's receiving in this picture, or did he throw the medal? Does it matter?Did John Kerry throw the Bronze Star he's receiving in this picture, or did he throw the medal? Does it matter?

Where was George W. Bush 30 years ago when he was supposed to be serving in the National Guard in Alabama? Did John Kerry throw his medals, or his ribbons, or his medals and ribbons? Who said what when, and what did they know and when did they know it?

A plausible case can be made that each candidate was involved in activities in the early 1970s that would detract from the compelling biographies posted on their websites. Bush hasn't satisfied everyone asking questions about his Guard service; Kerry's explanations about his medal-tossing antics have bordered on incoherent.

Now things are really starting to heat up. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) took to the Senate floor to denounce Vice President Dick Cheney as a "chicken hawk." This got various hawks clucking their disapproval of a senator talking like that.

We political junkies are supposed to find all of this very exciting, but I confess that I don't. I understand the arguments behind these lines of attack. Bush and a number of people in his administration – as well as some of the neoconservative pundits and policy wonks cheering them on from the outside – want to start wars but don't seem to have ever been especially eager to actually fight in them. Kerry wants to cite his conduct as a soldier in Vietnam decades ago as a major qualification for the presidency, but takes umbrage at any criticism of his record or subsequent antiwar activities.

Pointing out your opponent's hypocrisy is fine as far as it goes. It's always illuminating to show how many school choice opponents, for example, refuse to send their own children to public schools. It's worth noting when a politician consistently votes to raise taxes and boost spending on redistributive welfare programs but refuses to donate his own money to charity. If someone wants to inveigh against welfare queens while cashing in on any number of the federal entitlement programs that benefit that middle class and wealthy, by all means call them on it. But this isn't the same as refuting an argument.

The trouble with political scandal-mongering is that it tends to be a diversion from actual arguments and ideas. Few of the people feigning outrage about Bush or Kerry's Vietnam-era conduct would care if the same accusations were leveled against their preferred candidate. How many people who now insist that Kerry's military service makes him better qualified to be commander-in-chief than Bush voted for the elder George Bush or Bob Dole over Bill Clinton? How many of those who got up and gave impassioned speeches labeling Clinton a "draft-dodger" were similarly concerned about the Bush-was-AWOL allegations?

My guess is that the answer in both cases is very few. Let's be honest: Most people support the candidates who agree with them on the issues they find most important and don't really give a damn about the scandals and "gotcha" revelations of the other side. A depressingly large number approaches politics the same way they do professional sports, simply rooting for their favorite team regardless of who the players are. Questions about military service, shady business deals and all but the most egregious sexual misconduct are only relevant to most of these voters insofar as it safely confirms their preconceived impression that the other side's candidate is an all-around bad guy.

I think it is a lunatic notion to presume that we can simply reshape an entire region's political calculus at gunpoint or use military force to implant democracy in a country with no historical or cultural prerequisites for a functioning democratic government. Maybe the people within the Bush administration who wanted to go to war with Iraq on this basis would have thought better of it if they had more military experience, but I doubt it. In any case, this would still be a lunatic notion even if Dick Cheney had received a Bronze Star during the D-Day invasion.

The belief that the rightness of an idea or policy position is dictated by the personal peccadilloes of its most prominent adherents is, I think, bad for productive political debate. As a commentator, I cannot tell you how many times people think it is a devastating rejoinder to one of my columns to dredge up the name of some Republican elected official who defrauded his business partners, cheated on his wife or drove drunk and also happens to agree with me.

Last year, I wrote a column defending a tax-cut proposal then being debated. Didn't I know, one reader triumphantly e-mailed, that a prominent supply-sider who had just taken the same position on a major conservative website had used cocaine? No I didn't, although Googling around I was able to find confirmation of my correspondent's allegation, but I also failed to see why it mattered to my argument.

The downside of what is often piously described as the "politics of personal destruction" is that we spend more time arguing about people and personalities than we do about actual policies that affect the nation and the underlying assumptions that shape them. Rather than important debates about constitutional law, the role of government, taxation, foreign policy, war and peace or immigration, we talk about Willie Horton, Anita Hill, Gennifer Flowers and the vague recollections of people we never heard of about the candidates' actions many years ago.

None of this is to say that the character and personal conduct of elected officials absolutely doesn't count. I supported Bill Clinton's impeachment and believe he should have been removed from office. It is increasingly looking like Connecticut's Republican Gov. John Rowland ought to be impeached today. Nor does this mean that questions about a candidate's competence are invalid, although the fact is that most mainstream candidates come accompanied by a slew of advisors who you are effectively voting on as well. A vote for Bush or Kerry is just as much a vote for having the government organized by the advisors in their entourage as it is a vote for either of those two men.

But the kinds of things elected officials do or try to do to the country ultimately have a more lasting impact than the type of person they are or whatever headlines skillful opposition researchers manage to generate about them. It would be nice if for once that was the focus of campaign coverage.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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