Lies, Damn Lies, and Policy Choices

David E. Rosenbaum has an excellent opinion piece about the Democrats’ favorite canard of the moment: that Bush lied to the American public about weapons of mass destruction. Here’s the crux:

In fact, a review of the president’s public statements found little that could lead to a conclusion that the president actually lied on either subject. But more pertinent than whether the president told the literal truth is what factors he stressed and which ones he played down.

When presidents are trying to make fundamental changes in national policy as Mr. Bush is, said Donald F. Kettl, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, “they’ve got to find a way that’s powerful and persuasive and politically attractive and tap into what the public can grab.”

To me, this is where the Democrats' argument fails. Perhaps I'm guilty of thinking like a lawyer--I do play one in real life--but there's a crucial distinction between lying and advocacy. Bush, like many presidents and policy-makers before him, is guilty of advocacy.

Or maybe guilt has nothing to do with it. As the nation's chief executive, we expect our president to lead us in forming policy. To do so, he must sort through the available information, make a decision, then seek out support. When the decision hinges on information that is sometimes conflicting and inherently subjective--such as pre-war intelligence about Iraq's capabilities, for example--the resulting advocacy will always be open to criticism in retrospect. Where the object is a policy decision, not verifiable fact, this is exactly what we should expect.

But saying Bush selected information to emphasize (or perhaps exaggerate) in order to rally support for a policy choice is not the same as saying he lied. (A similar, but more cyinical take, may be found here: "Politicians twist facts to justify their policy objectives because that is what we pay them to do.")

Some Democrats appear ready to make this issue their main weapon in 2004. If they do, I doubt they'll be successful. Making comparisons to LBJ and Vietnam ignores a very important fact: the Second Gulf war, despite early predictions of gloom and doom, was no Vietnam. We won the war, quickly and at relatively low human cost. Public support never waned, and public confidence remains high that it was the right thing to do.

This issue seems quickly headed toward the classic pitfall of party politics: energize the base but alienate the public at large. (See also Clinton, W. J., Sex Scandals of [c. 1997-2000].) To mix metaphors, if they fall into this pit, the Dems may be digging their own grave in 2004.

Posted by Greg at June 22, 2003 10:02 PM | TrackBack (1)