Opposition researchers call it a "freebie." That's when the other side makes a statement that easily lends itself to attack or ridicule. Both Kerry and Bush have recently given freebies to each other. On August 5, Senator Kerry said that he could wage "a more sensitive war on terror" than Bush. A week later, Vice President Cheney mocked the comments, saying: "President Lincoln and General Grant did not wage sensitive warfare." Meanwhile, in response to a town-hall question about a national sales tax, President Bush said: "That's an interesting idea that we ought to explore." The Kerry campaign quickly denounced the Bush "plan," even offering figures on how large the tax would be.
Both campaigns are now upset about the distortions of their candidates' words. There's been a lot of indignation about the tone of the campaign, much of it justifiable. But this particular exchange is nothing to get upset about. Yes, Selective use of quotations is not exactly a novelty on the campaign trail. Though the Lincoln-Douglas debates included some profound discussions, they mainly consisted of such "gotcha" quotemongering.
And if campaign attacks teach the candidates to be more careful with their words, that's a good thing. Presidents ought to think before they speak. In 1977, President Carter roiled the Mideast when he endorsed "defensible borders" for Israel. At the time, the phrase connoted an Israeli refusal to give up occupied territories. In 2001, President Bush got into trouble when he referred to the war on terror as a "crusade." That word did not please Muslims, who remember the original Crusades.
Maybe Bush and Kerry will now be more ... sensitive.