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Monday, October 11, 2004

No Code?

I have numerous thoughts on the second Bush/Kerry debate, but there's one thing I've been following lately on which I wanted to go into detail.

A lot of you who watched the debates Friday night were probably as confused as I was regarding Bush's answer to a question about what kind of judges he would appoint to the Supreme Court were he awarded a second term. In addition to referencing a line of cases centering around "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, he cited the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford decision as an example of the judicial activism he was decrying and that he supported the judicial philosophy of "strict constructionism." (Never mind that even right-wing jurists and legal scholars, from Justice Scalia on down, are generally uncomfortable with the label "strict constructionism.")

Along with millions of other viewers, I was perplexed by this reference. It's not as if Bush needed to take a position against the appointment of pro-slavery judges. Even I didn't think Bush wanted a pro-slavery Supreme Court.

I did note that I was fairly sure that Bush was wrong about there being no basis for Dred Scott in the Constitution of the time:
No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due. (Art. IV, Sec. 2)

The Constitution doesn't contain the above passage anymore, but it did in 1857.

The court in Dred Scott ruled that legislation enacted pursuant to the Missouri Compromise, specifically a law in which Congress purported to restrict slavery in the territories, was unconstitutional. As pointed out in the link, Chief Justice Roger Taney based his decision largely on strict constructionist grounds. Not that I thought of George W. Bush as a legal scholar or anything.

Turns out Bush was speaking in code.

It's been a common rhetoric tactic in the anti-abortion movement to liken and link itself to the abolitionist movement. And this article points out that pro-life propaganda websites are fond of drawing a connection between Dred Scott and Roe v. Wade.

The implication is clear: He wants Roe overturned, and that reference was his way of communicating that fact to anti-abortion activists that his Supreme Court nominees would share that belief. But at the same time he didn't want to highlight this position to everyone else. So he said (or was told to say) something that most people wouldn't understand fully, but that the far-right core would understand.

Bush is of course free to advocate whatever policies he likes as effectively as he can. If he wants abortion outlawed, and wants to work to outlaw or at least severely restrict the availability of abortion, he is free to make that case. I'm not suggesting otherwise. Nor am I even suggesting that it was necessarily below the belt to attempt to make these communications.

However, I think that Bush's positions on this ought to be known, and that the citizenry and the media ought to be calling him out on this one.

I don't think it reflects well on Bush, and I'd like to think he's not going to get away with this trick. This whole idea of speaking in code runs contrary to the widespread public image of Bush as, love or hate his policies, a man who is forthright about his clear stances on issues of public concern. (Not that this issue is the only example of wavering, mixed signals, or outright obfuscation the Bush team has employed - try following his various positions about the desirability of a Patients' Bill of Rights, for one.) Along with numerous other examples, it also gives the lie to the idea that he is a uniter rather than a divider.

There are probably at least some voters who are probably leaning towards Bush who'd be forced to reconsider their leanings if they had a good reason to believe that another Bush term was going to precipitate the recriminalization of abortion.

I'm more hesitant than many in the blog world to trumpet how the blogosphere has changed everything. But one thing that has changed by the lightning-fast transfers of information is that the news "spin cycle" is sped up and that information management is tougher. Just four years ago, the meme that Bush "won" the first Presidential debate against Al Gore only emerged after several days, in part because Karl Rove's spin operation was superior, and the Republican campaign apparatus mounted a PR offensive in the following days that overwhelmed the Democrats. I don't think either side could pull off a spin reversal of that magnitude anymore. And I don't think that anyone is going to able to use a coded message like this very effectively anymore.


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