No beating around the Bush

The president: Don't vote for that Democrat because ... he's a Democrat!


Brendan Nyhan
May 12, 2002 2:30AM (UTC)

The battle to define Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and congressional Democrats as "obstructionists" is reaching new lows.

The Dallas Morning News reported that on Thursday, President Bush accused Texas Democratic Senate nominee Ron Kirk of being an "obstructionist," even as he praised Kirk as a person:

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"I know Ron Kirk. Like Ron Kirk. He's a nice fellow. He's not the right man for the United States Senate, as far as I'm concerned. I need a man up here in the Senate that's going to help me get an agenda done. I don't need an obstructionist. I need a positive influence. And John's [John Cornyn, the Republican candidate] an independent thinker, but he's a man who, I'm confident, working together, will help Texas."

Bush is now presumptively defining Democrats as obstructionists (and nonindependent thinkers) simply for being members of their party. Kirk has not cast a single vote in the Senate -- indeed, he has repeatedly expressed his desire to work with the president. But Bush was undeterred:

"When asked whether he thought Mr. Kirk could work with him, the president replied: 'Oh, I don't.'"

"Mr. Bush added: 'It's going to be hard for him to be able to make that claim when his first vote is to vote for the kind of committee chairmen that have been resisting everything I've been trying to get done.'"

As Clay Robison wrote in the Houston Chronicle, Cornyn has made Daschle the "central issue" of his race against Kirk. And the GOP's candidate for lieutenant governor in Texas is now even attacking Daschle, although the majority leader has no direct relevance to state affairs.

Bush and the GOP have every right to try to nationalize the election and turn every race into a referendum on the Democrats. And it's true that Democratic Senate candidates will vote for their party to control the Senate, which has implications for Bush's agenda. But framing every Democrat as obstructionist without regard to their beliefs or temperament is simply not rational. It's the reductio ad absurdum of negative political campaigning. Instead of attacking a candidate because of a disagreement on the issues -- or even a single issue -- Bush's rationale is simply, Don't vote for him because he disagrees with me. It's an argument designed to capitalize on the president's high approval ratings, and that implicitly undermines the legitimacy of Democratic opposition.

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Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist currently serving as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan.

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