Commentary

Bush, Kerry, and Partisan Hypocrisy

Republicans are criticizing a decorated Vietnam veteran, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, while liberals are denouncing President Bush for avoiding service in what liberals called an illegal and immoral war. That sort of reversal might seem odd if it wasn’t so reminiscent of other partisan battles over the past decade. Washington has become mired in a Red Team-Blue Team battle that leads partisans on both sides into rank hypocrisy.

Just think back to the Clinton years: Conservatives used to think that sexual harassment laws were a good example of big government trying to regulate everything under the sun. Feminists, they thought, wanted to criminalize normal flirting and dating. Feminists pushed a law through Congress that allowed plaintiffs in a sexual harassment suit to examine the defendant’s personal life in search of examples of similar behavior. It was the sort of thing that led Rush Limbaugh to call them femi-Nazis.

Then Bill Clinton — who perhaps unwisely had signed that law — was accused of making sexual advances to a low-level employee of the Arkansas state government when he was governor. Suddenly the conservatives were born-again femi-Nazis. Hang him, they said. It just can’t be lawful for a powerful man to make a vulgar advance at a woman who works for him, however distantly. And then when the legal pursuit of that accusation uncovered a case of actual sexual involvement with a young woman in the White House, they were ready to lynch him.

And the feminists? Suddenly they discovered the virtues of laissez faire. Consenting adults, they said. Intrusive regulation, they cried. No one should be asked such questions, they insisted — the questions they had earlier insisted powerful men must be asked in investigations of sexual harassment charges.

Would the switch be permanent? Would conservatives become the new avenging angels of shocked young ladies? Would feminists learn to say “lighten up, flirting can be fun, women like sex, too, you know”?

It didn’t take long to find out. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was accused of serial groping in 2003, conservatives and feminists resumed their old positions. Feminists were shocked, shocked to discover that a powerful and testosterone-laden movie star had touched women without their consent. Republicans, meanwhile, tossed aside both their old traditional values and their newfound quasi-feminism to dismiss the charges. The allegations were old, they said, and they were just the women’s word against Arnold’s, and the women were Democrats, and besides, lighten up — movie sets aren’t Grandma’s parlor.

Now we’re seeing another example of the same Red Team-Blue Team partisanship on the issue of draft dodging in the 1960s. A dozen years ago Bill Clinton was the first Vietnam-era candidate for president. He famously evaded the draft, and conservatives and Republicans hammered him mercilessly for it. But Democrats like wounded Vietnam veteran Sen. Bob Kerrey defended Clinton, saying that Bush should “put the Vietnam memory behind us” and that politicians like Bush were responsible for the system that allowed privileged young men to duck military service. Voters didn’t seem to mind whatever Clinton had done in his youth, as he defeated George Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996, both of whom had served honorably in World War II.

But this year providence has delivered the Democrats a presidential candidate who had a sterling record in Vietnam — three purple hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star. So liberals are badgering the younger George Bush about his own avoidance of Vietnam. For good measure, they’ve noted that Vice President Cheney and other leading Republicans also managed to avoid the military when it counted. They’re hammering away at the question of whether Bush showed up for National Guard duty in Alabama.

And the Republicans? They’re not just dismissing Bush’s service record as old news. With amazing chutzpah, they’ve gone on the attack against Kerry: was he really wounded all that seriously? Did he leave Vietnam earlier than he should have? Did he lie about throwing away his medals when he got back?

It’s Red Team-Blue Team time again. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans throw away their principles and policies at a moment’s notice to help a particular candidate. Politics ain’t beanbag, and I have nothing against attack ads. But such rapid switches of position make it hard to take these charges seriously.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.