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The manufactured debate over Kerry's war record, in light of Bush's privileged nonparticipation, is testament to Republican strategists' sound-bite brilliance

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There are so many legitimate areas of political disagreement that by comparison highlight the more outrageous issues as obscene. Consider the manufactured controversy over John Kerry's war record. The following excerpts are from a letter to the San Diego Tribune, regarded as so important by its author that he copied us (I've condensed punctuation): "John Kerry is being promoted as a Vietnam hero however would someone explain how, with only 4 months Vietnam service he accumulated a silver star and bronze star medals and 3 purple hearts. Really. That even beats John Wayne's movie war record by a mile.

"By the way the convenient 3 purple hearts got him shipped home after only 4 months service in Nam as opposed to the 1 year tour of duty. To date I have heard he only had a superficial arm wound from shrapnel and saved a fellow navy crew member from drowning and was shooting at an on land sniper by beaching his boat.

"If this be the case he should have been court marshalled for recklessly endangering the lives of his 4 man crew since this could have been a 'trap' and could also have damaged the boat's props as any novice boater knows." – Samuel Levine, San Diego

Think about how incredibly mean-spirited this whole campaign is. Kerry served in Vietnam and was awarded medals, but that's not good enough for some. "To date I have heard": Now that's damning with very firm evidence; let's take it to court. Wait, why bother? If Samuel heard it, then it is as truth.

Regardless of whether you think Bush fulfilled his obligation, he used family influence to get into the National Guard so he didn't have to fight in a war he supported but was very comfortable sending others to fight.

But this is falling into the spider's web of their strategy: Make a point so far-out that any discussion legitimates it. Even if the point is preposterous, if covered enough, bits of it will lodge in people's memories.

Vice-President Dick Cheney, Bill Bennett, Richard Perle, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Gov. Jeb Bush, Bill O'Reilly, and U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay are just a few of those championing the Iraqi invasion and so passionately "supporting" our troops that they happily put in harm's way, despite having never served in the military themselves. Some of them may even have legitimate excuses, but most are outrageous hypocrites.

The other day on the radio, someone was arguing that Rumsfeld is the single most qualified person to be secretary of defense because he has flown jets ("He has flown jets, hasn't he?" "Yes, though not in combat." "Sure, but he's still flown jets"). So his getting four deferments rather than serving in the military, helping to fight a war he supported, was probably just an oversight.

These assaults on Kerry's medals, in light of Bush's privileged nonparticipation, indicate how brilliantly current Republican strategists and their pundit camp followers have mastered strategy. Controlling the debate, they've realized, is ultimately more important than facts, consequences, or actual policy decisions. Think about the moral outrage over anti-Bush fanatics ("so blinded by their hatred that they attack anything he does"), expressed by those who reviled, insulted, and demonized Bill Clinton. If you set the agenda, if you get your opponent to respond to your charges – the more outrageous the better – then you not only control the debate but help dictate media coverage.

I don't have much passion for John Kerry, finding him uninspiring and politically bland. There is legitimacy to the partisan sniping that sees him as staking out politically advantageous positions rather than providing any comprehensive vision. Given the Bush administration's performance, there isn't much contest; bland is better than destructive, consideration better than ideological pandering, genuine compassion better than partisan polarization, and actually dealing with issues, even meekly, better than a sound-bite presidency.

None of the Democratic contenders was very inspiring. Lest the Naderites yelp a triumphant cry along the lines of, "Isn't that what we've been saying?!" my conscience thinks Nader would be one of the worst presidents ever. Yes, even worse than Bush. Sadly, Nader and the Naderites don't seem to have much dispute with the current administration's form, only with its content. So many of their arguments, as well as the very reason for the campaign, are against bipartisan, cooperative government and thus inherently anti-democratic. Rather than compromise, consideration, and negotiation, they push a platform as extreme as Bush's, only differing on almost every position. In discussing his electoral impact, Nader and his followers are as disingenuous as any mainstream politicians in spinning facts and twisting numbers. Listen to their rhetoric: They don't want a government that is steered toward the middle by the core idea of democracy (especially a democratic-republic form of government), which is that all the voters are represented. Democracy probably works best when it works worst, when the very system hampers too-aggressive legislative progress. Ideally, most voters probably should be unhappy most of the time.

This discussion is by no means an attempt to legitimize the current administration. They've taken partisan politics to a new level while abandoning core conservative beliefs. They've offered ruinous contradictory policies (free trade and steel tariffs, less government and massive financial support to agricultural megabusinesses) and have given lip service to personal freedom while pushing unprecedented interventions by the government into the lives and rights of individuals. Ignoring the historical consequences of European imperialism and our own misguided military interventions during the past century, they've authored the worst American foreign policy record since at least the time of the Spanish-American War. They've learned to dominate elections by understanding that it doesn't matter what they do as long as they aggressively say the right things in simple enough sound bites.

Here in Texas, we're witnessing the consequences of "fewer taxes, better education." Nationally, taxes are being slashed for the wealthiest Americans while spending spirals out of control. Not only that, but defense and security are force-fed tax dollars, the pork barrel is bursting, and the true Iraqi price tag is rocketing while social service, job training, and education spending is being cut. When the time comes to pay the ridiculous bills now being run up, whose burden do you want to bet they will end up being?

My disgust with the current administration is political, not personal. I am not blinded by my hatred for Bush, because I don't hate him. I do think he is a terrible president, a shallow person, and a very bad American (though an intuitively brilliant politician). If this sounds like, "I don't hate him, but I hate him," that's wrong. I have no opinion of him as an individual. My feelings are based on his policy and performance.

Now with Kerry and the rest of the Democratic contenders, I can't decide if they were truly uninspiring or I've become completely cynical. The only truly great president during my lifetime was Lyndon Baines Johnson. Yet, I spent more than a few waking hours during his administration chanting, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" so what do I know? At least some of my confusion and despair over the unabated, insanely vitriolic hatred of Clinton is that his presidency wasn't that extraordinarily accomplished. Admittedly, in light of the current administration, it was magnificently decent and compassionate, more concerned with the needs of people, the quality of the environment, and social realities than ideology, big business, and abstract sloganeering. But Clinton always seemed better at and more interested in politics than policy.

Casting the world in black and white, as right and wrong, allows some conservatives to justify their worst partisan instincts. Today I heard a radio talk-show host read an inspiring piece about what it means to be an American, detailing this country's immigrant origins and championing its insistence on personal freedom. Ignoring the anti-illegal-immigrant hysteria of her own program, she went on to praise the piece, demanding that those opposed to the war in Iraq or negative about Bush were being bad Americans and "have to be stopped!"

end story

On Iraq: For those who still harbor fantasies that this invasion was in the service of democracy or will result in same, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal is worth noting. It talks about how some prominent Turkish leaders were beginning to consider supporting an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Given the long history of the Turks and Kurds, some of those closest to and with the most knowledge of Iraq must hold essentially no optimism for a moderate democratic Iraq if Kurdish independence (in order to have a serious buffer state) is even an issue. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

John Kerry, George W. Bush, Kerry war record, Kerry Vietnam service, 2004 election, Republican strategy, tax cuts, social spending, Iraq war, Texas school finance, Bush national guard, Bush Vietnam service, Dick Cheney, Bill Bennett, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Jeb Bush

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