Suckers for a Catchy Line

Campaigns and candidates pelt reporters all day long with tasty sound bites, hoping that they will then be tossed out to the public, often attached to either a charge or a claim. And the media has often proved unable to resist a line President Bush first used in his second debate with John Kerry, and one that has become a staple of his stump speeches:

“He can run from his record, but he cannot hide.”

In “Bush, Kerry Likely to Clash on Economy,” the Associated Press’ Nedra Pickler, in a classic case of reporter-as-stenographer for campaign claims, throws in the line from a Bush speech in Colorado Springs:

Bush said Kerry would have to raise taxes to pay for all of his proposals. Kerry says he would pay for them by repealing Bush’s ‘unaffordable’ tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 and scaling back other government spending. He promised during the second debate that he would not raise taxes for those who make less.

“The problem is, to keep that promise, he would have to break almost all of his other ones,” Bush said. “To pay for all the big spending programs he’s outlined during his campaign, he will have to raise your taxes. He can run from his record, but he cannot hide.”

Pickler’s article doesn’t help the reader figure out who is right, a signature of he-said/she-said reporting. But, had she done a little digging, as Agence France-Presse did, she might have uncovered a report by the non-partisan Concord Coalition concluding that both Bush’s tax-and-spending plan and Kerry’s plan tax-and-spending plan would result in about a $1.3 trillion deficit increase. Pickler did, however, make reference to the (he-can-run-but-he-can’t-hide) quip.

Perhaps that’s why Bush loves the sound bite, and applies it as an emphasis point to any number of charges — he knows reporters can’t resist it. A perusal of Bush’s recent stump speech transcripts (in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico) reveals that he has used the line in reference to Kerry’s position on Iraq, his health care plan, his Senate votes on weapons systems and intelligence spending, and his plan for taxes and spending (as referenced in Pickler’s report)., another non-partisan group, has refuted many of the charges about Kerry’s position on Iraq, on his health care plan, and on his Senate votes. But Bush, or his handlers, understands that every time he uses the “can run but cannot hide” gambit, it gets press — often press that doesn’t stop to ascertain the veracity of the charge of the day. And sure enough, the line was picked up today by news organizations big and small, from NBC and Knight Ridder (filtered to many local outlets) to the Reno Gazette-Journal and the Rocky Mountain News and in a report on CNN’s website.

For its part, the CNN report uses the line to fact-check Bush’s frequent claim that Kerry is the most liberal member of the U.S. senate. (The National Journal listed Kerry as the most liberal voter in the Senate in 2003, but the 11th most liberal if the standard is votes over a lifetime.) It would have been nice had CNN gone one more step and taken a stab at explaining the system that the National Journal used to tabulate its rankings…but, hey, these days, as the fevered candidates and the attendant press stumble toward the finish line like wayward drunks, we’ll take whatever crumbs we can get.

Susanna Dilliplane

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Susanna Dilliplane is a contributor to CJR.