To: William Saletan
From: Jacob Weisberg
The Bush line on Al Gore was that the 2000 Democratic nominee had a habit of fibbing and exaggerating. There wasn't much substance to this charge, but through repetition, it stuck. This time, the president is trying to undermine John Kerry in a similar way, with a slightly different accusation—that Kerry talks out of both sides of his mouth. I'm afraid there's a bit more substance to this criticism. The classic expression of the Gore charge was "I invented the Internet" (which Gore never really said). The killer Kerry quote is, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it" (which Kerry really did say).
These new Bush ads try to bolster the Kerry's-a-weasel thesis in relation to two pieces of legislation, the Patriot Act and the president's "No Child Left Behind" education reform bill. The first ad, "Patriot Act," contends that after voting for the antiterrorism law, Kerry changed his positions because of liberal pressure (with surprising restraint, it avoids the term "ACLU"). The second ad, "Accountability," which is in Spanish, asserts that Kerry voted for Bush's ed bill but now opposes it because of pressure from the teachers unions. From the GOP perspective, the beauty of these spots, which have no special artistry, is that they zing Kerry both on sensitive issues and on character. If you don't buy the insinuation that Kerry is not to be trusted, you may accept the line that his positions are too "liberal." If you don't object to his positions, you may still find him devious. And if the ads really work their magic, you'll come away thinking Kerry is dangerously liberal and personally untrustworthy.
How fair are the specific charges? Kerry has indeed been inconsistent on the Patriot Act. Along with every Democratic senator except Russ Feingold, he voted for it in 2001, arguing that it was a tool prosecutors needed to fight terrorism. During the primaries, Kerry said he was unhappy with the bill and wanted to replace it with a new law. You can't prove that Kerry moved in this direction because of liberal pressure, as the ad claims, but it's a reasonable surmise. Kerry has specifically criticized only two aspects of the law. One is the library provision that liberal groups have been most vocal in protesting—but that Dahlia Lithwick and Julia Turner, in a dispassionate analysis for Slate, found to be among the less significant and troubling. Democrats seldom hesitate to attribute Bush's turns and twitches to pressure from the religious right or corporate lobbyists. He's doing no worse to Kerry.
On the other hand, the Bushies, in their factual backup for the ad, don't provide any evidence for the charge that Kerry wants to repeal provisions of the Patriot Act dealing with subpoenas, wiretaps, and surveillance, or that he'd give law-enforcement agents fewer powers to spy on terrorists than on drug dealers and mobsters. Kerry has been deliberately vague about how he'd change the law, suggesting that he mainly wants more judicial oversight and that his concern is the use of antiterrorism laws in ordinary criminal cases.
In responding to the ad, Kerry tries to justify his apparent change of heart in two ways. The first is by saying that he isn't against the Patriot Act per se, just that he doesn't like the way John Ashcroft has applied it. That's as specious as his subsequent defense of his vote on the Iraq War resolution: that he never imagined Bush would actually go to war with Iraq. C'mon. He's John Ashcroft. Kerry knew what the bill said and whom he was handing the power to. Kerry also never quite says how, exactly, Ashcroft has abused or misinterpreted the law. Kerry's second defense—that he doesn't really want to repeal the Patriot Act, merely to fine-tune it—is pretty weak as well. Kerry says he would keep 95 percent of the law's provisions. You could keep 95 percent of the Constitution and lose the Bill of Rights.
In sum, if Kerry hasn't done the full back-flip Bush claims on the Patriot Act, he's wormed and pandered around it enough to justify the shot.