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Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Introducing... VandeHei Watch: 2.24.04

Since Ceci Connolly isn't writing much of anything these days for the Washington Post, I'm adopting one of her colleagues to pick up the slack. Rest assured, when Ceci returns, I'll be here waiting.

I've mentioned a few times that my alternate WaPo Watch subject is going to be Jim VandeHei. Wonkette points to an interesting article in The Washingtonian that reports the following:

The Washington Post's Jim VandeHei has made his mark as the hottest new member of the traveling press corps. VandeHei, who just turned 33, was the first reporter to examine and expose Howard Dean's history of hasty, factually frail statements. His stories before the winter holidays started to change the public perception of Dean, and then he exposed the former governor's tenuous relationship with religion.

As for John Kerry, VandeHei put some potholes in the senator's way with a story about the contributions he had gleaned from special interests even as he railed against them.

For the journalist adopter, those two paragraphs should set off sirens. It shows how twisted the system is when a young reporter becomes "the hottest new member of the traveling press corps" by writing stories that "change the public perception" of a candidate for president. It shouldn't be the writer's stories that do such a thing, but rather the actions and statements of the actual candidate that cause such a change (see Jay Rosen for some discussion of "the press as a player").

The special interests charge against Kerry has also turned out to be bogus--a minor detail, right? Peter Beinart wrote a strong piece on this last week, which I cited in this space over the weekend, rebutting the VandeHei article's claim that Kerry has taken more special interest money than any other senator in the past 15 years:

The first argument is the simplest: Kerry takes money from special interests, too. Last week, the Bush campaign released a Web video titled "Unprincipled, Chapter 1." Kerry, the video charged, takes "more special interest money than any other senator." That's based on a January 31 Washington Post story, which noted that Kerry "has raised more money from paid lobbyists than any other senator over the past 15 years."

But the Post figure is misleading because it ignores the fact that Kerry has largely eschewed money from political action committees (PACs), a major source of funds for most of his colleagues. When you combine money from paid lobbyists and PACs--which makes sense, since they're both conduits for "special interests"--Kerry actually ranks ninety-second out of 100 U.S. senators. That doesn't make him pure, but it makes him purer than most serious candidates for the White House. And it puts him on a different planet from President Bush, who accepted more money from lobbyists last year alone than Kerry has in the last 15.

Despite the inaccuracy of VandeHei's claim in the January 31 Post article, the argument was picked up bb Bush/Cheney '04 and repeated as fact by the New York Times, among others.

In short, VandeHei is richly deserving of adoption, so here we go...

Tuesday's article runs on A10 under the headline "Past Votes May Dog The Kerry Campaign." It focuses on the legitimate problem Kerry faces of framing his argument against Bush in light of his votes in favor of the Iraq War, Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind, fast track, etc. This subject is especially topical in light of the opening salvo Bush fired in a speech on Monday night.

Most of the criticism is fair, in my view, which, I admit, is one that isn't very sympathetic to Kerry to begin with. I am of the opinion that the area in which Kerry's record has been distorted most frequently of late is trade, and that also is the case with VandeHei's article. VandeHei is correct to point out that John Edwards' harping on how he opposed NAFTA at the time it was passed isn't backed up by much evidence. He goes on to quote a recent Kerry get-tough-on-trade applause line and suggests hypocrisy:

Yet in the Senate, Kerry voted for a Bush trade agreement with Chile and Singapore that some Democrats complained did not mandate tough enough labor and environment standards. Kerry also voted twice to provide Bush greater authority to negotiate trade agreements by granting so-called "fast track" power, which requires a straight up-or-down vote from Congress and precludes the House and Senate from amending the trade pacts.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who endorsed Kerry after dropping out of the race, has complained that the trade pact with Chile and Singapore and the fast-track bill "failed" to protect workers, human rights and the environment.

Two points here. First, the fact that "some Democrats" along with Dick Gephardt disliked the Singapore and Chile trade agreements doesn't automatically make them bad. Singapore and Chile, in fact, are both countries that are rather well off compared with other US trade partners, so many of the typical concerns aren't as relevant. The fact that Gephardt endorsed Kerry also should suggest that Kerry's trade views can't be irreconcilable with that of the left-leaning Democrats either.

Second, the fast-track vote is distorted by Gephardt's comment. As VandeHei notes in the first paragraph, the vote on fast-track authority doesn't by itself approve any particular trade agreement, so it's silly to claim that fast track by itself hurts workers or the environment. It simply means that Congress votes on trade deals up or down, without amending. If the president doesn't have fast-track authority, it is basically impossible to negotiate any free-trade agreement since the partner country won't want to be subject to revisions by the Congress. It's a good vote by Kerry because it at least makes the striking of sound trade deals possible in the future. If a trade pact is bad news, it should get voted down on its own merits in that case. VandeHei leaves the reader without the benefit of this obvious rebuttal to the criticism of Kerry's trade policy votes.

Moving on, while VandeHei discusses John Edwards' positions on trade in comparison with Kerry's, VandeHei never mentions that Edwards also voted for the Iraq War, Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind, just as Kerry did. That's important to know because the subtext of the piece is that Kerry may not be a good choice for the Democrats to run against Bush on the basis of this voting record. VandeHei should let readers know Edwards has precisely the same problem. That said, I disagree with VandeHei's claim that this could lead to a lot of people backing Nader:

Because Kerry essentially advocates trimming, tweaking or tightening these Bush policies, voters seeking more dramatic changes might turn to independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader as they did in 2000, some Democrats say.

There are also "some Democrats" out there who think this election will be much different from 2000 and the Nader vote will be very small (case in point: Ryan Lizza). Why does VandeHei only present one side of the picture? Presumably he wants to paint as gloomy a picture for Kerry's chances as possible so that he can hang on to his reputation for shaking up the race.