Bush's slippery spin on Kerry's Iraq views

By Tim Grieve
Published August 17, 2004 5:25PM (EDT)

For a week now, George W. Bush has been delighting his audiences with a new riff on John Kerry's Iraq views. "Almost two years after he voted for the war in Iraq, and almost 220 days after switching positions to declare himself the antiwar candidate, my opponent has found a new nuance," Bush says. "He now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq."

Even by this White House's sorry standards for truthfulness, the Bush bit on Kerry is extraordinary: It's false four times over. Let's break it down.

"Almost two years after he voted for the war in Iraq . . ." John Kerry never "voted for the war on Iraq." In October 2002, he voted for a resolution that authorized Bush to use force in Iraq if -- and only if -- the president determined it necessary to defend U.S. national security and to enforce United Nations resolutions.

Although he chooses to ignore it now, Bush certainly seemed to understand the conditional nature of the Senate vote when it was made. The day before the Senate voted, Bush said the resolution meant that the Iraqi government "must disarm and comply with existing U.N. resolutions, or it will be forced to comply." The day the Senate voted, Bush said the Senate had authorized "the use of force, if necessary." While Bush may have known that he was going to invade Iraq no matter what, that's not what Bush said, it's not what the resolution said, and it's not what Kerry voted for.

" . . . and almost 220 days after switching positions to declare himself the antiwar candidate . . . " Kerry never declared himself "the antiwar candidate." Bush is referring to an appearance Kerry made on "Hardball" on Jan. 6, 2004. Chris Matthews asked Kerry, "Do you think you belong in that category of candidates who more or less are unhappy with this war? The way it's been fought? Along with General Clark, along with Howard Dean, and not necessarily in companionship politically on the issue of the war with people like Lieberman, Edwards and Gephardt? Are you one of the antiwar candidates?" Kerry's response: "I am. Yes. In the sense that I don't believe the president took us to war as he should have, yes. Absolutely."

The Bush-Cheney campaign seems to understand that the question Matthews actually asked and the answer Kerry actually gave don't support their flip-flop claim. Thus, when the campaign released a video on Kerry's "flip-flops" on Iraq, it edited down the exchange so it looks like this. Matthews: "Are you one of the antiwar candidates?" Kerry: "I am. Yes." Last night on "Hardball," Bush strategist Matthew Dowd defended the campaign's editing efforts, telling Matthews: You asked John Kerry a yes or no question. And he said yes, absolutely.

Matthews didn't buy it. Is the president going to keep saying that something that was said on this show wasnt said? Would you like to have your sentences cut down like to a third of their length and let people decide on the first three or four words what you meant by the 20 words? I think you guys should consider taking this off your loop. I think the president ought to be shown this tape so he knows what hes talking about, instead of having it fed to him by somebody who doesnt show [him the] full sentence.

" . . . my opponent has found a new nuance . . ." There is nothing "new" about Kerry's position on Iraq. Bush is referring here to Kerry's Aug. 9 statement in which he said that, even knowing what he knows today, he would have voted in favor of the October 2002 resolution, but that he would have used the authority it gave the president "very differently" than the way Bush did.

That's almost exactly what Kerry has said about his vote any number of times before. In an interview in Salon in May, for example, Kerry said: "My vote was the right vote. If I had been president, I would have wanted that authority to leverage the behavior that we needed. But I would have used it so differently than the way George Bush did." When Kerry made his statement at the Grand Canyon, at least some of the media recognized it for what it was: nothing new. CNN headlined the story: "Kerry stands by 'yes' vote on Iraq war." NPR said: "Kerry Reaffirms Iraq Stance at Grand Canyon Stop." That doesn't help Bush's flip-flop charge, so Kerry's consistent statement on Iraq somehow becomes a "nuance" that's "new."

"He now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq." Kerry has not said that it was "the right decision to go into Iraq." Kerry said on Aug. 9 that he thought his vote on the 2002 resolution was the right one because it gave Bush "the right authority for the president to have. " Kerry said that Bush has used the authority in the wrong way. While one of Kerry's top national security advisors has said that Kerry "in all probability" would have gone to war in Iraq eventually, Kerry hasn't said that himself. Rather, Kerry says that Bush rushed into war "on faulty intelligence" and "without a plan to win the peace," that he misled the country "about how he would go to war," and that he has failed to persuade other countries to join the war effort.

Will any of this matter to the Bush-Cheney campaign? Probably not. While Bush and Cheney finally seem to have stopped spreading the phony claim that Kerry is the "most liberal" member of the U.S. Senate, the White House still hasn't condemned the misleading "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" ad that its backers are running. And on "Hardball" last night, Dowd gave no indication that the White House plans to back down from its slippery spin on Kerry's Iraq views.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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