Operating from Behind a Blur of Spin

Whether the White House is parrying questions about September 11 or Social Security, its slick tactics put even Clinton to shame

By Howard Gleckman

The Bush Administration has taken political spin to a level undreamed of even by Bill Clinton. In two of the most critical issues facing the country, the White House is substituting demagoguery for information. Example One: Its response to questions about what the Administration knew prior to September 11 about possible terrorist attacks. Example Two: Team Bush's reaction to new criticism of its plan to create private Social Security accounts.

When pressed, all pols love to dip into their bag of tricks. Three favorite ways to avoid having to confront a serious issue are truly Orwellian: Deny a charge that was never actually made, accuse your critics of partisanship or even disloyalty, and change the subject. These days, the spin machine is working overtime.


  Take the Administration's carefully scripted insistence that the President had no specific advance information about an Osama bin Laden-orchestrated attack in the U.S. And consider the White House's equally well-rehearsed insistence that Social Security private accounts would not endanger current retirees' benefits. Remember those two words -- "specific" and "current." In both cases, Bush aides are denying allegations that no serious critics ever made.

For instance, following the attacks of September 11, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said on Sept. 12, "We had no specific information..." On the same day, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "I have not seen any evidence that there was a specific signal that we missed." On Sept. 16, Vice-President Dick Cheney said there was "no specific threat." It was all carefully choreographed around that word "specific."

The White House argument: No one gave George Bush advance warning that terrorists would fly a plane into the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. Thus, there's no need for further inquiry.

It's the same with Social Security. In recent days, Democrats renewed their criticism of Bush's plan to create private investment accounts as a partial replacement for the traditional retirement program. Their objection: The accounts would result in cuts in basic Social Security benefits.


  Well, of course they will -- for future retirees. But, in theory, young workers will be able to invest those funds and more than make up for the loss of traditional benefits. And the nation needs to have an important conversation about those trade-offs. Instead, the White House has ducked the serious debate by focusing on nonexistent threats to today's seniors and blasting critics for alleging that private accounts would endanger the benefits of current retirees.

The second technique is even simpler. Attack your opponents' motives. On Social Security, Bush allies charged that critics of private accounts are out to frighten seniors. In the September 11 controversy, the charges are even more troubling. There, top White House officials came very close to accusing members of Congress of disloyalty for questioning what the President knew and when he knew it. Such suggestions, warned Vice-President Dick Cheney are "thoroughly irresponsible...in a time of war."

If you read what lawmakers actually said following revelations of early (and of course, nonspecific) warnings of a terrorist threat, their remarks seem pretty timid. For instance, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was singled out for criticism. His "irresponsible" question: "Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information?" That doesn't exactly make him Tokyo Rose. Yet, the White House has tried to portray such milquetoast questions as unpatriotic partisan attacks.


  The third technique: Change the subject. When it became clear the White House was getting nowhere with its private-account scheme, the Administration began shifting the debate to another issue of great interest to seniors -- Medicare. And as things got sticky about pre-September 11 terrorism warnings, the White House put out the word that a new attack is in the works. There's no better way to distract journalists from an old story than to throw them a new one to chew on.

All of this is, of course, politics. Clinton was a master at it. So was Ronald Reagan. And the Bush White House isn't entirely wrong when it questions the motives of some Democratic critics. But the country needs to talk about what happened before September 11. And about the critical trade-offs required to fix Social Security. Issues such as these are too important for pols to substitute spin for facts.

Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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