By now, it is clear that the CBS forged memo imbroglio has worked to George W. Bushs advantage in a variety of ways, though not primarily in the way many Democrats allege. Frustrated Kerry supporters sense that the scandal has hurt their man by distracting attention from other aspects of the Bush Air National Guard story that they started pushing after the Republican Convention. However, it was never clear that the Guard attack would have the effect they desired, even if unimpeded by Memogate. For one thing, the charges were never particularly strong. In 2000, the Gore campaign passed on the opportunity to pursue the Guard angle because it deemed the charges insufficiently supported. For another, Bush never staked his claim to the presidency on his Guard service, and voters were unlikely to judge him on that basis.
The brouhaha has, however, helped Bush in other less obvious ways.
First, at a moment when Kerry needs to focus his message and dominate the news in order to make up his deficit in the polls, coverage of Memogate has produced enough static that it has been hard for either campaign to get a message through consistently. Even Kerrys much-heralded Iraq speech could not break through for long. Like a hurricane, the scandal has driven much other news off the front pages, freezing the race in place. With only six weeks to go, Kerry can ill afford to have whole weeks taken out of play.
Second, Memogate has succeeded in tearing the non-partisan mask off of the elite media. First we come to discover that Dan Rather peddled highly questionable documents without having them thoroughly cleared by experts, documents that were clearly given to CBS News with the hopes of affecting the presidential race. Next we find out that the producer, Mary Mapes, served as an intermediary between the probable source and a key Kerry campaign staffer. It is difficult to say whether anyone in America can still believe that CBS has not simply put itself at the disposal of the Kerry campaign. The salutary effect of all of this for Bush is that the elite medias self-appointed task of electing Kerry is now made much more difficult. Blatant bias may have to be tamped down, and when it reappears, Americans will be more likely to see it for what it is. Can anyone take Dan Rathers pronouncements about Iraq seriously anymore? Now the proper response to the bumper sticker “Rather Be Fishin” is: You bet he is. Nor should anyone expect that the damage is confined to CBS. The media establishment as a whole has taken a major hit.
Third, the forgery represents the biggest example of dirty tricks in a presidential election campaign since Watergate (more precisely, the biggest dirty trick publicly exposed). The Kerry campaign may or may not have been actively involved, though the Mary Mapes-Joe Lockhart-Bill Burgett triumvirate is mighty suspicious. Fairly or unfairly, it is likely that many voters will associate the scandal with Kerry. Any such association will make it hard for him to gain traction on the issue of trust which he has recently introduced.
Thus, at a critical juncture when Kerry had to dominate the news, planned to attack Bushs Guard service and honesty, and hoped to benefit from the good offices of Dan Rather and his peers, Memogate has dominated the news, discredited both Rather and the Guard story, and put Kerrys campaign in ethically dubious company.
It was always an open question whether the virulent hatred of Bush on the left would bubble over in self-destructive ways during the presidential campaign. Could the party of Michael Moore restrain itself through November 2, or would it go too far? Perhaps Memogate has given us an answer.
Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.