Topic: Government & Politics

"Higher Taxes," Kinsley, and Word Games

If Ethics Scoreboard decided to comment on every obfuscation, deception or misrepresentation it is bound to encounter on this loooong journey to November’s election, there would be time and space for nothing else. Still, it’s early, and maybe if we blend our voices with those of the others out there who believe our Chief Executive selection process should be purged of willful dishonesty committed by the major parties, either the parties will restrain their wicked campaigning ways, or fewer voters will be fooled by them.

Michael Kinsley in his column of March 24, has correctly identified the Bush Campaign claim that John Kerry voted for higher taxes 350 times as pure deceit.

[Deceit, by the way, is the favorite variety of lie in Washington, D.C., and such a common mode of communication that there are many high ranking individuals who no longer think it is a lie. A deceitful statement is one that is literally true in some respect, but that is intentionally put forward in a context and manner that will lead a listener or reader to believe something that is not true. The classic example: “I did not have sex with that woman!” The speaker is using a narrow definition of “sex,” knowing full well that a majority of those hearing or reading his statement will assume that he was using the broader and more common definition.]

He actually checked out the details of the “350 votes for higher taxes” on the GOP website. Now, the rapid-response reply on the site makes a couple of legitimate critical points about Kinsley’s interpretation, but does nothing to dim his central thesis. When the Republicans say that Senator Kerry voted for higher taxes, most people will think that means that he voted to raise a particular tax or institute a new tax…and the GOP knows that they will think that. This is exactly what it wants people to think. This is the essence of deceit.

In fact, as the GOP web site itself points out, “voting for higher taxes” is defined by the Republican Party as

  1. Voting for tax increases
  2. Voting against tax cuts
  3. Voting to reduce the size of a proposed tax cut
  4. Voting against repealing previously passed tax increases
  5. “Votes for democrat tax cut substitutes.”

All of which recalls Alice’s debate with Humpty Dumpty over whether you can make a word mean anything you want it to. Look: only number one is truly a “vote for higher taxes” by the usual meaning of those words. Let’s be honest:

  • Voting against a tax cut (#2) is voting to let taxes stay the same.
  • Voting to reduce the size of a proposed tax cut (#3) is voting to reduce taxes, but by less than someone else would like.
  • Voting against repealing previously passed tax increases (#4) is not voting for higher taxes, because the size of the taxes have already been determined.
  • Voting for a tax cut substitute (#5) is the same as voting against a tax cut (#2).

The GOP argument is that in each case Kerry’s position, if it prevailed, would mean taxes higher than if the alternative prevailed. Fine, GOP, say that in your ads. That is a fair representation of the facts. But Kerry did not vote “350 times for higher taxes.” Kinsley’s analysis of the deceit is correct.

But let’s not let the former Cross-Fire host go scot free, for he too engaged in some unethical word play in his article. He cagily substitutes the term “tax increases” for the GOP’s “higher taxes,” as if they mean the same thing…and indeed, most of Kinsley’s readers won’t notice the difference. (Editor True Confessions: I didn’t.) But the GOP deceit, like all deceit, is based on a carefully literal use of words. Kerry voted “for” “higher” taxes because taxes would have ended up “lower” if his opponents prevailed.

Even the GOP website doesn’t claim Kerry voted 350 times to increase taxes. Voting against a tax cut isn’t voting to increase taxes, but it is voting for the higher tax figure, literally voting “for higher taxes” in Republican speak.

Kinsley couldn’t argue as effectively or assertively that the actual language of the Bush campaign claim was false, so he changed the language. He cheated too.

This is going to be a long campaign.

One more thing: Ethicsscoreboard gives the GOP some credit for at least including the details of all the votes on its website, so those of us who think the accusation against Kerry is deceitful can check the facts. Of course, deceitful language is never intended for the likes of the careful reader who is willing to wade through the 87 pages of procedural motions, amendments and proposed bills. It is intended for the gullible citizens who accept a bumper-sticker claim as fact, the gullible citizens who don’t think political parties and political columnists play word games.

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