Tuesday, October 12, 2004



Being President Means Never Having to Say He's Sorry

October 12, 2004


We heard a lot about mistakes in the second presidential debate. Senator John Kerry declared that rushing to war in Iraq unilaterally without adequate plans to win the peace was a catastrophic mistake. From President Bush we heard, Mistakes? Not me. You can't lead the world if you say your country made a mistake.

It is no surprise that the president took that position. It's one he has stuck to throughout the campaign. (Well, he did try to soften that stance a bit in the second debate. He admitted he had made some mistaken appointments, but of course he couldn't name them or it would hurt those people's feelings.) His "Mistakes? Never touch the stuff!" approach is part of the hypermasculine persona he tries to put forth, along with his stay-the-course, go-it-alone, never-waver profile.

How is that stance likely to be received by female voters? Democrats and Republicans alike have set their sights on winning women's votes come Nov. 2. Historically, more women than men vote (eight million more in 2000) and a larger percentage of women vote Democratic (in 2000, by 11 percentage points for Al Gore while men preferred Mr. Bush by 11 percentage points). To raise the stakes, a poll conducted recently by Time magazine found that 61 percent of undecided voters were women. That's why, many people think, Mr. Kerry appeared on "Live With Regis and Kelly," and why Mr. Bush has begun talking about how the overthrow of the Taliban has helped Afghan women.

Perhaps it was not by chance that it was a woman who asked the president, at the town hall debate last Friday, to list three instances in which he had made wrong decisions since taking office. If women react to Mr. Bush's made-no-mistake tactic the way they react to it when it is used by men in their lives, a majority may well be more angered than reassured. That's because it drives many women nuts when men won't say they made a mistake and apologize if they do something wrong. I'm reminded of a woman who was angry at her husband because she had given him an important letter to mail and he'd assured her he'd mail it, then told her the next day, "I forgot to mail your letter," and stopped there. She waited in vain for the sentence to continue, "I'm sorry." In the end, she was angry not about the letter but about the missing apology.

Many men learn, from the time they're children, to avoid apologizing, because it entails admitting fault, and that's risky for them. Boys have to be on their guard against appearing weak - either literally, by losing fights, or figuratively, in the way they speak - because if they act or talk in ways that show weakness, other boys will take advantage and push them around.

But refusing to apologize infuriates women because that makes it seem as if the guy doesn't care that he let her down, and if he doesn't care, there's no reason to think he won't do it again. This is the negative effect - the collateral damage - that Mr. Bush's "certainty" is certain to have on many women: if he won't admit he made a mistake in his handling of Iraq, it seems he doesn't care about the American soldiers killed and maimed, the civilians beheaded, about the Iraqi children blown up by insurgents' bombs.

The role of talk about "mistakes" in the rhetoric of the debate was particularly striking when Mr. Bush intoned, and repeated, that no one will follow a president who says the war was a mistake. With this, he tried, aikido-like, to pin on his opponent the stigma of association with the word "mistake," even as the stigmatizing mistakes were not Mr. Kerry's, but those of which Mr. Kerry accused him. (It made me think of the children's taunt, "I am rubber, you are glue, anything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.") It's a clever manipulation of language.

Will it work? Probably with fewer women than men, because most women don't regard admitting fault as a liability. Instead, they value it as a sign of caring - and a necessary prerequisite to maintain credibility. The British Labor Party seems to regard this as true for the British electorate; Tony Blair, in order to keep his party's support, had to admit publicly last month that he was wrong about his reasons for going to war. Similarly, in the election-changing debate between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon, Nixon insisted that the United States must never apologize to the Soviet Union for having sent a U-2 plane on a spying mission into its territory even though we were caught red-handed when the plane was shot down. And it was the victorious Kennedy who argued that the United States must admit fault and "express regret."

If Mr. Bush's made-no-mistake bravado can be understood by looking to the power struggles of boys at play, when cornered, he often plays the mischievous but lovable child - a little boy so cute, so charming, you really can't be mad at him. On Friday night, he displayed that coy persona in first saying, "I'm not telling," when asked about possible Supreme Court appointments. But the charming little boy will probably also undercut his credibility if he reminds mothers of their own little boys who insist, "I didn't eat the cookie - he did!" even as cookie crumbs are clinging to their chins.

In his campaign appearances, Mr. Bush has been saying that what matters isn't caring but doing. This may be an attempt to deal with the "compassion gap" that has long dogged Republicans, and has widened under the Bush administration. But caring is the prerequisite for doing, and that's why many women value apologies and admitting mistakes.

Appeal to women will surely be at the forefront of both candidates' minds in tomorrow night's debate, since domestic issues like jobs and health care are believed to be a top priority among female voters. It will be interesting to see if the president is asked the mistake question about these issues as well, and, if he is, how he chooses to respond.

Deborah Tannen, a professor oflinguistics at Georgetown University, is the author, most recently, of" I Only Say This Because I Love You."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

Checking the Facts, in Advance

October 12, 2004


It's not hard to predict what President Bush, who sounds increasingly desperate, will say tomorrow. Here are eight lies or distortions you'll hear, and the truth about each:


Mr. Bush will talk about the 1.7 million jobs created since the summer of 2003, and will say that the economy is "strong and getting stronger." That's like boasting about getting a D on your final exam, when you flunked the midterm and needed at least a C to pass the course.

Mr. Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a decline in payroll employment. That's worse than it sounds because the economy needs around 1.6 million new jobs each year just to keep up with population growth. The past year's job gains, while better news than earlier job losses, barely met this requirement, and they did little to close the huge gap between the number of jobs the country needs and the number actually available.


Mr. Bush will boast about the decline in the unemployment rate from its June 2003 peak. But the employed fraction of the population didn't rise at all; unemployment declined only because some of those without jobs stopped actively looking for work, and therefore dropped out of the unemployment statistics. The labor force participation rate - the fraction of the population either working or actively looking for work - has fallen sharply under Mr. Bush; if it had stayed at its January 2001 level, the official unemployment rate would be 7.4 percent.

The deficit

Mr. Bush will claim that the recession and 9/11 caused record budget deficits. Congressional Budget Office estimates show that tax cuts caused about two-thirds of the 2004 deficit.

The tax cuts

Mr. Bush will claim that Senator John Kerry opposed "middle class" tax cuts. But budget office numbers show that most of Mr. Bush's tax cuts went to the best-off 10 percent of families, and more than a third went to the top 1 percent, whose average income is more than $1 million.

The Kerry tax plan

Mr. Bush will claim, once again, that Mr. Kerry plans to raise taxes on many small businesses. In fact, only a tiny percentage would be affected. Moreover, as Mr. Kerry correctly pointed out last week, the administration's definition of a small-business owner is so broad that in 2001 it included Mr. Bush, who does indeed have a stake in a timber company - a business he's so little involved with that he apparently forgot about it.

Fiscal responsibility

Mr. Bush will claim that Mr. Kerry proposes $2 trillion in new spending. That's a partisan number and is much higher than independent estimates. Meanwhile, as The Washington Post pointed out after the Republican convention, the administration's own numbers show that the cost of the agenda Mr. Bush laid out "is likely to be well in excess of $3 trillion" and "far eclipses that of the Kerry plan."


On Friday, Mr. Bush claimed that he had increased nondefense discretionary spending by only 1 percent per year. The actual number is 8 percent, even after adjusting for inflation. Mr. Bush seems to have confused his budget promises - which he keeps on breaking - with reality.

Health care

Mr. Bush will claim that Mr. Kerry wants to take medical decisions away from individuals. The Kerry plan would expand Medicaid (which works like Medicare), ensuring that children, in particular, have health insurance. It would protect everyone against catastrophic medical expenses, a particular help to the chronically ill. It would do nothing to restrict patients' choices.

By singling out Mr. Bush's lies and misrepresentations, am I saying that Mr. Kerry isn't equally at fault? Yes.

Mr. Kerry sometimes uses verbal shorthand that offers nitpickers things to complain about. He talks of 1.6 million lost jobs; that's the private-sector loss, partly offset by increased government employment. But the job record is indeed awful. He talks of the $200 billion cost of the Iraq war; actual spending is only $120 billion so far. But nobody doubts that the war will cost at least another $80 billion. The point is that Mr. Kerry can, at most, be accused of using loose language; the thrust of his statements is correct.

Mr. Bush's statements, on the other hand, are fundamentally dishonest. He is insisting that black is white, and that failure is success. Journalists who play it safe by spending equal time exposing his lies and parsing Mr. Kerry's choice of words are betraying their readers.

E-mail: krugman@nytimes.com