Wednesday, September 24, 2003

A less measured politician is one who is more likely to make a gaffe

The Dean Defense Force highlights yet another example of the press taking a minor statement by a candidate (this time Dean) and blowing it up all out of proportion. This time it was a mild comment by Dean about Clark's confusing statements last week about the latter's stance on the Iraq war.

Yesterday Dean held a powerful, positive rally in Boston, focused entirely on attacking the Bush record. What did The New York Times report? That he attacked General Clark

In fact, what Dean did was tell reporters what they themselves have been reporting, that Clark’s stand on the Iraq war had been unclear. "He still has to clarify his position," Dean said.

In his own talks with Clark, Dean felt Clark’s position on the war was clear. And, in fact, Clark lately has tried hard to state he is against this war, calling it a “big blunder.” Unfortunately, polls calling Clark a front-runner have caused right-wing hacks to surround him like ravenous wolves – he hasn’t been able to get the word out.

But that is his problem, and Dean’s pointing it out does not make Dean an attack dog. Except to The New York Times. When corporations create phony grassroots campaigns for their private interests, those campaigns are called “Astroturf.” This was an “Astro-Attack.” Let them know you don’t like it.

This is another example of the media's "let's you and him fight" approach. They like to see dustups between the candidates and so, when they see a comment like Dean's, they blow it up to be an all out assault on Clark's character and an attempt to paint Clark as somehow pro-Iraq-war.

It's all about pushing the drama of battles between the candidates. The journalists expect to see it so they leap at any indication that it might be happening.

Was Dean attacking Clark? Was he deliberately trying to sew bad feelings about the General's position?  I doubt it. It's more likely that Dean was simply asked a question about the troubles Clark had and he expressed an honest opinion about it. I felt the same way about it as Dean did. I, like Dean, was shocked to hear the comment. Clark has already done a good job of correcting for his gaffe. He will probably need to do so repeatedly in order to repair the damage caused by his misstep.

Such is the fate of all honest politicians who don't waste a lot of time measuring their words before they open their mouths. Dean has been down this road himself ("evenhanded approach to Israel and Palestine" anyone?). People say they want politicians who are more open in expressing their opinions. But to get this we have to give them the benefit of the doubt when we hear something that sounds bad.

This is why I think The Pledge is so important. Some Clark supporters, on reading this story, will assume that Dean made his comment as part of a calculated effort to call their candidate's character into question. They will pass this story on reflexively (just as I passed on some negative Clark stories before I developed The Pledge). If they were to take The Pledge they could stop this kind of divisive story in its tracks before it damages the Democratic candidate's chances against Bush next Fall.

Dean's comment, while perhaps ill-considered, is nowhere on the same level as the recent attempts by Lieberman, Kerry and Gephardt to deliberately distort Dean's positions (going so far as to promote web sites chockfull of smears against Dean). Those candidates are getting desperate because they know their campaigns are foundering. Is Dean capable of doing the same thing? Perhaps. But let's hold of on criticizing him for this until he actually does.

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