The first question posed to Sen. John F. Kerry in the second presidential debate came from Cheryl Otis. Cheryl asked the senator about the veracity of the flip-flop label that has formed the center of Republican strategists’ negative campaigning. In response, the Senator defended his record, illustrating how White House-sponsored legislation has not been fully funded and how the trust Congress invested in the president and his proposals was tragically misplaced.
President George W. Bush, rather than account for his failed policies, reverted to the strategy of labeling Sen. Kerry as an indecisive legislator and even directly accused him of pandering: “You know, for a while he was a strong supporter of getting rid of Saddam Hussein. He saw the wisdom — until the Democrat primary came along and Howard Dean, the anti-war candidate, began to gain on him, and he changed positions.” I found this accusation absolutely appalling in its degree of hypocrisy. Examining the policies of President Bush and Sen. Kerry, it is easily determinable that Bush, rather than his challenger, is the panderer in this contest.
Overall, the issue of pandering has thoroughly permeated the public debate surrounding this election. For the last seven months, the president, along with Republican strategists, has attempted to paint Sen. Kerry as constantly changing his views on important issues to appeal to the greatest number of voters. Republicans argue that Kerry’s record is littered with instances in which he has altered his position in order to pander to the electorate, and they claim such pandering is a dangerous quality in a commander-in-chief waging a war on terror.
Republicans — forgive the pun — are absolutely right. Pandering is a dangerous quality to have in a chief executive. Unfortunately, however, the president fails to pass his own test of qualification for the presidency. Time and time again throughout the past year, President Bush, as guided by his savvy political advisor Karl Rove, has attempted to pander to citizens whose voting decisions boil down to a single issue. These single-issue voters are primarily concerned with one of the “three Gs” of American politics: God, guns and gays.
Throughout the past few months, President Bush has skewed his legislative priorities as well as his election strategy to attract these single-issue voters into the Republican camp. The president’s consistent invocation of a deity, coupled with his constant attempts to incorporate prayer and God into his remarks — such as in the first presidential debate, when he recalled meeting the recently widowed army wife Missy and praying with her — constitutes a concentrated effort to bring the bloc of religious-oriented voters over to his side.
I probably would not be so outraged with the president’s pandering if it were confined to his campaign and stump-speech remarks. However, the president’s legislative agenda has also been skewed by his desire to appeal to other blocs of single-issue voters. For example, take the issue of renewing 1994’s assault weapons ban. The president, while promising to sign a renewal if Congress passed it, failed to push Congress and promote the legislation. While the president consistently accuses Kerry of having it both ways on the issue of Iraq, having it both ways is precisely what President Bush did on the issue of assault weapons. Despite saying he was in favor of a renewal, the president permitted the legislation to lapse and, at 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 13, the assault-weapons ban sunset clause took effect. Such action by the president represents obvious pandering to those single-issue gun voters.
The most egregious instance of pandering, however, occurred this past January. In his State of the Union address — just 10 months before the election — President Bush raised the issue of gay marriage, threatening that if judges and local governments were permitted to define marriage, the federal government would be forced to use the “constitutional process” to outlaw same-sex marriage. By bringing this issue to the forefront in this highly public forum and explicitly making it an election-year topic, the president pandered to those single-issue voters opposed to gay marriage. I also have no doubt that President Bush and Karl Rove were fully aware that such a position would greatly favor the president in the Midwestern swing states where same-sex marriage is incredibly unpopular (Missouri, a swing state with 11 votes in the electoral college, just recently voted to outlaw it by a 70-percent margin).
Despite these instances of pandering, the president, Karl Rove and the Bush-Cheney campaign continue to hypocritically label Sen. Kerry as a panderer. Perhaps Republican strategists continue to attack Sen. Kerry in this fashion because they are afraid that if they do not, the president’s attempts to cater to single-issue voters will be recognized for what they are. I can only hope that the American electorate will realize the disgusting hypocrisy of the Bush-Cheney campaign and recognize President Bush as the true panderer in the 2004 presidential election.
Jonathan Menitove is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.