This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
What a relief! The Iraqi WMD crisis is over. I feel safer. What about you?
This week we learned that the Iraq Survey Group, the outfit that was hunting for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, quietly stopped looking sometime in January. They didn't find any. Crisis over.
Just as some hardcore inconvincibles believe that hundreds of thousands of stolen Democratic votes are hidden somewhere in Ohio, some will forever be sure that Iraqi bio-bombs are hidden in Syria. For the rest of us, for those whose minds haven't clamped shut like growling dogs, there's a simple reality. As Charles Duelfer's report to the CIA back in September found, there were no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in Iraq.
The Bush administrations primary rationale for the invasion was wrong. "Fear of the nonexistent WMD brought us a war," The New York Times editorialized.
Yet fear remains a key weapon in this administration's political arsenal.
Fear of no Social Security. Fear of torts. Fear of homeland insecurity.
This was well illustrated by an observant piece in the Washington Post by Jim VandeHei that analyzed the president's promiscuous use of the word "crisis."
For Social Security, President Bush said in a Dec. 20 press conference, the "crisis is here." Senate Democrats, Mr. Bush often says, have created a "vacancy crisis" in the federal judiciary by not confirming his judges.
Medical lawsuits have created a "crisis in America" that needs to be repaired by tort reform. VandeHei counted the word "crisis" four times in a speech Mr. Bush made on Jan. 6.
This rhetorical and marketing tactic seemed to work in the president's first term. In a century, historians may or may not conclude that the Iraq War helped the planet. But the campaign to go to war will surely go into the disinformation hall of fame.
To a lesser degree, the president sold the No Child Left Behind Act as a response to a crisis in education. Tax cuts were a response to an economic crisis. The Patriot Act was a response to a homeland security crisis.
In 2002 and 2003, the administration, but especially Attorney General John Ashcroft, was explicitly and repeatedly attacked for manipulating the country's post-9/11 fears. Ashcroft rushed to the cameras with every bust, Tom Ridge told us to get duct tape and bottled water and the color codes of danger changed haphazardly.
The rhetoric of crisis is subtler as the second term approaches.
Is there a Social Security crisis? Mr. Bush says yes, the Democrats say no. They say the system as is can deliver the promised benefits until at least 2042. And they say minor revenue increases and benefits made soon can safeguard Social Security for much longer. They say the "crisis" is made up so the administration can start experimenting with private Social Security accounts.
And THAT, the Democrats say, is a crisis. They believe the administration's proposal to offer optional, voluntary private accounts would start an inexorable avalanche on the slippery slope of privatizing Social Security, of taking away government guaranteed payments to old people. They think it's an evil plot by evil-doers. A crisis. That's their crisis-mongering.
On the facts, the Democrats are right to say that Social Security doesn't pose an immediate crisis. But in defining the issues supporting an aging population so narrowly, the Democrats are every bit as disingenuous as the administration. When you put Social Security on top of Medicare, on top of rising medical costs and in the context of a shrinking workforce and expanding elderly population, you have something pretty close to a crisis. But it's not one either party is talking much about.
Is there a medical malpractice crisis? Mr. Bush says so. Democrats say that since costs associated with malpractice lawsuits total only about 2 percent of all medical costs, it's silly to scare people into thinking that lawsuits are the main reason why medical bills go up while the quality and convenience of care go down. But if you're a doctor or a patient looking for a doctor in an area where malpractice insurance rates really are skyrocketing, you might be forgiven if you think there's a crisis.
Is there a crisis in the federal judiciary? Well, crime rates are going down, and you don't see Mr. Bush sending up fresh nominees that he knows the Senate will instantly confirm, so I guess not.
Crisis-mongering and the rhetoric of fear are bipartisan and ancient.
But the quiet conclusion of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq reminds us that this administration acquired its credibility problem the old-fashioned way, it earned it. For the next four years, when you hear that something is a crisis, hold on to your wallet and demand a reality check.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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