The RNC’s new Web video “Retreat and Defeat” starts with a flat-screen TV playing clips from Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and Sen. John Kerry. As they speak, a white flag waves over their faces while ominous music moans. Dean says the war in Iraq can’t be won; Boxer says withdrawal should start after the Iraqi election; and Kerry says U.S. soldiers shouldn’t be “terrorizing kids and children, you know, women.” Then the camera pans back, and we learn that we’ve been watching these clips over the shoulder of a U.S. soldier dressed in desert camouflage, his service rifle strapped to his back. Candy canes hang on the wall just above the screen, which flashes the message: “Our soldiers are watching and our enemies are too.”
The video conveys the impression that somewhere in Iraq, a soldier is having his mission and Christmas tarnished by weak-willed Democrats. Here is a frame from the ad and the actual picture of the soldier, taken two years ago. As shown below, the soldier was really watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
Web ads are a special low art meant to stir the base. Both parties use them: They are cheap to produce and usually highly misleading. Both parties also hope the media pick up on them and spread their messages without the party having to buy actual, expensive air time.
Bush has distorted images of U.S. soldiers before. During the 2004 campaign, he got into trouble when one of his ads, titled “Whatever It Takes,” doctored the images of soldiers. The ad showed a crowd of soldiers listening to the president. But some of the faces appeared several times in several different places within the same crowd shot, the result of an attempt to increase the number of soldiers appearing to listen to Mr. Bush.
What neither party has done—until now—is inject the idea that the other party is undermining our troops overseas. The RNC is pimping a mute and unnamed soldier not just to defend the Iraq war but to imply that Democrats are white-handkerchief-waving cowards who want the United States to lose.
This is not the president’s official message, at least in classier settings. “There’s an important debate going on in our nation’s capital about Iraq,” he said last week at the Council on Foreign Relations, “and the fact that we can debate these issues openly in the midst of a dangerous war brings credit to our democracy.” Other White House officials have been pushing back against the charge that the president has been trying to stifle discussion, because they recognize that he can only rebuild his credibility by engaging in debate—not trying to shut it down. Perhaps someone should let the RNC know. Officials there defend the use of the soldier, saying it highlights the stakes in the argument.
It goes almost without saying that some of the quotes from Democrats are taken out of context in a way that completely distorts their meanings. In the statement excerpted in the video, Kerry was not accusing U.S. soldiers of war crimes in Iraq. He was saying local police and military—not American forces—should be doing the difficult work of going into Iraqi homes in the dead of night, which is also the president’s wish. This is the sentence Kerry uttered after the one the RNC uses: “Whether you like it or not, Iraqis should be doing that.” Kerry likes to make his own selective criticisms of the president, but this libel is especially vicious in light of the insinuations that Kerry made unjustified accusations about American atrocities in Vietnam.
The video’s treatment of Barbara Boxer is just bizarre. “So there’s no specific time frame,” they quote her as saying, “but I would say the withdrawal ought to start now, right after the elections December 15th.” The liberal California senator has surely said something more incendiary somewhere, but that quote is simply stating administration policy. Here’s what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said two weeks before Boxer’s remarks, when he answered a question on Face the Nation about whether troops would withdraw: “No question. I mean, we went up for the referendum in October 15th and we went from 138,000 to 160,000. We’re now at 159,000. We’re going to stay that size roughly through the December 15th election. We’re clearly going to go back down to 138,000 after the election.”
Our soldiers are watching. But all they’re seeing is a cartoon.