In his 1988 acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention, George H.W. Bush looked the American people in the eye and told them, “Read my lips. No new taxes.”
When he broke that promise two years later, he sowed the seeds of his own defeat because trust mattered to the voters — and it still does.[IMGCAP(1)]
So it’s all the more amazing that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has been caught in a pair of real whoppers — one on international diplomacy, the other taxes — that have failed to receive the scrutiny they deserve.
First, the “global” whopper. Kerry has spent most of the presidential campaign claiming superior “internationalist” credentials while slamming President Bush for his supposed inability or disinclination to work with the global community in the war on terror. To bolster his argument, Kerry has cited his decision to go to New York to meet with members of the United Nations Security Council before making his decision to vote to authorize the president to use force in Iraq.
In a question-and-answer session following a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations last December, Kerry described the trip this way: “I sat with the French and British, Germans, with the entire Security Council, and we spent a couple of hours talking about what they saw as the path to a united front in order to be able to deal with Saddam Hussein.” He made a similar claim in the second presidential debate.
On Monday, though, we learned that Kerry’s account would be better described as a “close encounter of the small kind” rather than the important-sounding “invitation to meet with the Security Council.” In a Washington Times syndicated column, Joel Mowbray, who took it upon himself to actually check out Kerry’s United Nations “dance card,” found that Kerry’s story didn’t quite square with the facts.
A number of U.N. ambassadors who sat on the Security Council at the time said they had never met with Kerry; and the French ambassador — yes, I said French — told Mowbray that a full meeting of Security Council members and Kerry simply never took place. There were a handful of one-on-one meetings but not the summit-like gathering of Kerry’s vivid imagination.
So, let’s get this straight. Kerry, who is applying for the job of commander in chief, says he’s more qualified because he will tell the American people the truth when it comes to our foreign policy. Now we find out he’s “exaggerated his résumé” — big time. This is the same Kerry who boasted that he’d met with foreign leaders who told the Senator they wanted him to win. The Kerry campaign, when pressed for details of these meetings, also came up empty. Would someone please buy this man a Day-Timer?
But Kerry’s Security Council misrepresentation isn’t the only whopper this month that risks the trust of the American people. Kerry’s 2004 update of Bush 41’s “no new taxes” pledge comes in a close second. One of the most dramatic moments in the second presidential debate came when Kerry was asked by an audience member, “Would you be willing to look directly into the camera and … give the American people your solemn pledge not to sign any legislation that will increase the tax burden on families earning less than $200,000 a year during your first term?”
Kerry did exactly that. He turned resolutely to the camera and promised, “Absolutely. Yes. Right into the camera. Yes. I am not going to raise taxes.”
But we now know that wasn’t true, either. Kerry’s own Web site says a President Kerry would restore the two-top income tax brackets to the levels under the Clinton administration. There’s the rub. Using the Clinton brackets, taxpayers earning as low as $147,000 will get hit with a Kerry tax increase.
Kerry has taken a huge risk by, in essence, telling voters, “Read my lips, no new taxes” knowing full well that his own bean counters can’t honestly defend his $200,000 promise. The question is: Can he keep the media away from these stories for another week?
Clearly, a distraction strategy seems to be in play, to keep the media focused on the return of former President Bill Clinton and trumped-up charges of voter suppression, while the public remains in the dark about these two crucial issues of trust. I suspect the Kerry campaign knows how devastating the loss of trust can be to a presidential candidate, and either of these stories could put a stake through Kerry’s chances.
Bush has enjoyed the trust of the American people throughout his presidency. Despite economic upheavals the country has suffered, despite terrorist attacks and an imperfect war (although realists understand war is never perfect), Bush has maintained a bond of trust with voters. A recent Time Magazine poll (Oct. 19-21) found that when voters were asked whom they trusted to handle the war on terror, 56 percent said Bush and only 37 percent said Kerry.
That’s why Kerry and his spokesmen have pumped up the volume of their attacks in past weeks, accusing the president of at best “misleading” voters on the war and at worst “lying” to them.
Over and over again, Kerry has thundered, “The president has failed to level with the American people.” Funny thing about trust. It’s something you earn — not claim.
David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.