Paper Ballots

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, October 26, 2004)


Whether newspaper endorsements sway readers’ presidential preferences is debatable and hard to prove, but such endorsements often provide measured rationales for supporting one candidate. This year, that’s particularly true for editorial boards that endorsed George Bush in 2000 and now share their reason for switching sides.

As Editor and Publisher noted Monday, Kerry leads Bush in endorsements 128-105, with the pro-Kerry papers read by approximately six million more people than the pro-Bush publications. But what’s most telling is the profound disappointment expressed by those papers that backed Bush last time and have now sided with Kerry.

For example, the Albequerque Tribune endorsement opens with a few paragraphs praising Kerry for his understanding of “the gray, the nuance” in the world, before detailing the failures of a president the paper favored four years ago:

“We urge independent and undecided voters in particular to double-check what Bush says against what he has done. Bush continues to insult American intelligence with his:

“Mistaken and unreal views of the war in Iraq, with its mounting costs in American and Iraqi lives, money and good will.

“Failure to focus U.S. military might on pursuing our real enemy, the terrorists.

“Willingness to compromise American freedoms, in contrast to a resistance to develop and implement safeguards to protect our people, borders, ports and infrastructure from future terror attacks.

“Unabashed flip-flop of the conservative fiscal ideal, turning a balanced federal budget — indeed, a huge surplus — into the largest deficit in U.S. history.

“Unrelenting attack on 30 years of environmental promise to benefit political friends in the fossil fuel and utility industries.”

The normally Republican-leaning Chicago Sun-Times expressed similar sentiments, detailing how Bush’s post-Sept. 11 actions caused a “change in outlook” within the editorial board:

“[Bush] missed a historic opportunity to ask Americans, unified by the attack, to sacrifice and build a greater, stronger, better nation. Instead he told the country we were at war, but a war that would demand nothing of us except that we keep shopping. And he took us into Iraq…

“The president’s handling of the past year in Iraq — his dismissal of those who warned him about the difficulty of reorganizing the country, his neglect of deep problems that are costing American lives there — made us doubt his ability to bring our involvement there to a successful conclusion. And we became concerned by the secrecy of his subordinates such as Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft, coupled with an unnecessary disregard for some of our most cherished civil liberties.”

In Memphis, the Commercial Appeal expressed some concerns with both John Kerry and John Edwards, and questioned the feasibility of their domestic agenda. But the editorial board found Bush’s foreign policy enough of a reason to reverse its endorsement this year:

“This recommendation comes because of deeper concerns about where George W. Bush will take this country over the next four years.

“We recognize that many of our readers will profoundly disagree. But we believe that President Bush, who once promised to be a uniter, was given a mandate to lead a united country when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and he has not used it wisely.

“Whatever his shortcomings, Sen. Kerry, we believe, has a chance to restore the traditional, cooperative approach toward foreign policy that has served America well since the Eisenhower administration. We need more allies in the war on terror and to help us protect the homeland.”

In Florida, that swing state of swing states, the Orlando Sentinel also switched from Bush despite its support for his brother and its long pro-Republican tradition (Lyndon Johnson had been the last Democrat endorsed for president by the Sentinel).

“Four years ago, we expressed confidence that Mr. Bush would replace the Clinton-Gore approach of frequent military intervention for one of selective involvement ‘using strict tests to evaluate U.S. national interests.’ To the president’s credit, the war in Afghanistan met those tests. But today, U.S. forces also are fighting and dying in a war of choice in Iraq — one that was launched to disarm a dictator who did not have weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea have worsened…

“Four years ago, we also called on Mr. Bush to pay down the nation’s multitrillion-dollar debt before cutting taxes or increasing spending. Yet since then, he has pushed through massive tax cuts, and the national debt has risen from $5.8 trillion to $7.4 trillion. Discretionary spending — not including defense and homeland security — has risen 16 percent over three years. The president has not vetoed a single spending bill…

“Four years ago, we called it a ‘disgrace’ that 43 million Americans lacked health insurance. That number has risen under Mr. Bush to 45 million. Yet the plan he now touts on the campaign trail would reduce the ranks of the uninsured by less than 20 percent, and he has not offered a way to pay for it…

“Indeed, Mr. Bush has abandoned the core values we thought we shared with him — keeping the nation strong while ensuring that its government is limited, accountable and fiscally responsible. We trust Mr. Kerry not to make the mistakes Mr. Bush has.”

While these are among the highest-profile papers to support Kerry after backing Bush in 2000, they are hardly alone. Others include The (Portland) Oregonian, the Seattle Times, Contra Costa (Calif.) Times, Oakland Tribune, (Boulder, Colo.) Daily Camera, (Chicago) Daily Herald, Quad City Times of Davenport, Iowa, the (Boise) Idaho Statesman, The Flint Journal and the Billings (Mont.) Gazette, among others.

Whether these endorsements will make any difference is unclear. What is clear, however, is their addition to the chorus of those dissatisfied with their choice of George W. Bush, reflecting the problem of violated expectations that could well end his presidency.

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