The political press recently figured out, with a few weeks left in the race, that the campaigns’ rhetoric often distorts their opponents’ positions. But reporters are still frightened about stating that discovery too unequivocally, so we’ve had a slew of stories lately with milquetoast headlines in the vein of “Some Ads are Sometimes a Little Misleading, But Both Sides are Equally Guilty, Keep in Mind.”

Today Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post turns in his latest variation on the theme. Under the headline, “Ads Push the Factual Envelope,” Kurtz judges, unsurprisingly, that the two campaigns are equally culpable right now. “Even after turning negative in September,” he writes, “Kerry has pushed the factual envelope less often than the president — until recently.”

But in making his case that Kerry is stretching the truth, Kurtz himself stretches the evidence in one instance.

Kurtz writes: “Kerry said last week that there is a ‘great potential’ that Bush will reinstate the draft. The president has repeatedly denied this, and Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt, in a common campaign refrain, said the charge shows Kerry ‘will do or say anything to get elected.’”

Is this really an instance of Kerry “pushing the factual envelope” comparable to the two genuine examples of distortion that precede and follow it in Kurtz’s piece (Kerry saying that Bush “has a plan that cuts Social Security benefits,” and Bush saying Kerry is proposing “government-run” health care)?

Kurtz cites Bush’s denials that he intends to reinstate the draft. And since we all know that politicians never go back on their campaign promises, the case is closed.

Back in the reality-based community, this calls for a little more scrutiny. Last week Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that, although everyone hopes to avoid it, “the resuscitation of the draft doesn’t seem out of the question.” He continued:

Virtually all of the Army’s active-duty combat brigades and most of its Marine units were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan in 2003 or 2004. There is no letup in sight. Nearly half of the country’s deployable ground forces are likely to remain in hostile environments for at least the next couple of years, meaning that most units will experience at least one more rotation abroad in that time. About one-fourth of all ground-force reservists have been mobilized at any given time since 9/11, and about 50,000 are now in Iraq. Certainly it seems reasonable to ask whether the all-volunteer military can sustain that level of commitment.

It’s not just O’Hanlon. Few experts dispute that our current military forces are stretched to the limit. And yesterday the New York Times reported on the administration’s contingency plans for a draft of medical workers.

Does all this mean Bush definitely would institute a draft in his second term? Of course not. But it does mean that Kerry’s assertion that “there is great potential” for a return of the draft under Bush is hardly “pushing the factual envelope,” as Kurtz would have it.

Kurtz gets himself in trouble because he treats the debate over the draft as a simple question of the candidates’ “positions.” It’s true that Bush’s official position (and Kerry’s) is that there will be no draft. But we thought it was the job of the press to go a little further than the talking points, and give us the context and information to judge their truthfulness. Silly us.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.