Jewish World Review March 23, 2004 / 1 Nissan, 5764

Robert Robb

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McCain a ‘straight talker’? Who is he kidding? | What in the world was John McCain thinking?

On Thursday, John McCain was asked on one talk show whether he thought John Kerry was weak on defense, and on another whether he agreed with Dick Cheney's claim that Kerry is a threat to national security.

Now, to paraphrase the country song, this isn't McCain's first rodeo. He's an experienced player in big-time national politics.

McCain knows that Kerry's defense and national security record is a prime issue for the Bush campaign. And he knows that Kerry's record is, in a large number of areas, different than McCain's and therefore presumably different than what McCain thinks is in the best interests of the country.

If McCain didn't want to be associated with a particular characterization of Kerry as "weak" on defense or a "threat" to national security, out of friendship or a general concern with political hygiene, there was an obvious sidestep: "I would prefer to put it this way: I believe that John Kerry is a good man, who served his country honorably, and has the best interests of the country at heart. But he and President Bush, and he and I, differ greatly on how best to protect this country. And those differences are what campaigns are all about."

Instead, he specifically rejected the weak on defense formulation. And, in response to the question about Cheney, said, in part, "this kind of rhetoric, I think, is not helpful in educating and helping the American people make a choice."

He had to know that this would be spun as a rebuke of the Bush campaign generally, and Cheney specifically, for going beyond the pale in criticizing Kerry's record on defense and national security.

In the first place, this just isn't true.

In his speech that framed the Bush campaign's case against Kerry's record, Cheney did not employ inflamed rhetoric. In fact, I'm not sure Cheney is capable of inflamed rhetoric.

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Cheney said: "Sen. Kerry's voting record on national security raises some important questions all by itself."

He then went on to recite a familiar litany of votes and statements: Voting against the first Iraq war but later praising it. Voting for the second Iraq war, but then condemning it.

Cheney cited Kerry's votes against a variety of weapon systems that have proved useful on the battlefield: the Apache helicopter, the Tomahawk cruise missile, and the Bradley fighting vehicle.

And he rebutted Kerry's criticism that initially not all the troops in Iraq had the best body armor by pointing out that Kerry voted against the supplemental appropriation that, in part, paid for correcting that deficit. The toughest thing Cheney said about Kerry was that his record was not "impressive ...for someone who aspires to become commander-in-chief in this time of testing for our country…. (T)he senator from Massachusetts has given us ample doubts about his judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security."

Politics is in part the art of hyperbole. McCain himself has recently chided fellow lawmakers for "spending money like a drunken sailor," described the energy bill as the "No Lobbyist Left Behind Act," and labeled the FEC "enablers" for special interest money.

The danger to democracy is when hyperbole transgresses into demagoguery. Cheney didn't really approach hyperbole, much less demagoguery. And the Bush campaign in general hasn't crossed the line, although I'm sure it will.

Kerry, however, has been immersed in demagoguery for some time.

On foreign policy, Kerry has said: "The Bush administration has pursued the most arrogant, reckless and ideological foreign policy in modern history."

According to Kerry, "Bush's policies are destroying America's economic security." And Bush "has put the interests of his buddies and big-shot campaign contributors ahead of the people he passes by in his motorcade."

Kerry notably stood aside when the chairman of the Democratic Party called Bush "AWOL" regarding his National Guard duty.

McCain is entitled to take offense when campaign rhetoric gets overheated.

But depicting it as equally so at this point is just plain false.

More importantly, given McCain's views on the national security issues confronting the country, he has to believe that many of Kerry's policies would have, and will, make the nation less safe and secure.

A straight-talker should be willing to say so.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


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