September 2, 2004

What is a "personal" attack?

I see there is a lot of fallout from the Zell Miller speech last night. And "fallout" is an especially good image if you take Chris Matthews seriously ("[I]t‘s as if somebody dropped the atom bomb on the Democratic Party"). Unfortunately, I missed the big fight between Miller and Matthews last night. So I read the transcript (previous link), and I'm not going to call the shots there except to say that I think Miller really did mishear Matthews at a key point. [ADDED: Since I'm about to get picky about language usage, let me point out that "call the shots" is the wrong expression there! I mean I'm not going to dissect it.] What I want to talk about is the "personal attack" meme. First, Tim Russert says:
[T]he question is, will Zell Miller‘s comments attract the so-called Bubba vote that Democrats, Republicans call it down South, particularly in north Florida, or will it turn off swing, independent voters or proportionally women who don‘t like negative attacks, because it was very, very personal?
(I love the way he sees us all as Bubbas or faint-hearted females or some such thing, reacting only to the tone of things.) Russert's "personal attack" meme infects Joe Scarborough and Chris Matthews, who repeat it several times. At one point, Matthews says:
That attack about Ted Kennedy and John Kerry was personal. Nobody is going to step back and say it wasn‘t. The idea that this guy is going to shoot spitballs in defense of country that he risked his life to defend some years ago is a personal attack on the guy. This is serious business. I want to ask everybody, did Democrats make a mistake in not shooting at their opponents?
Okay, I just want to step back and say it wasn't personal. Aggressively pointing to the deficiencies in a politician's political record is a political attack, not a personal attack. A personal attack aims at the candidate's personal or family life or addresses some more intimate matter outside of his political actions. Miller certainly attacked Kerry last night, and it was powerful and harsh, but it was not about personal matters. It was effective precisely because it pointed to and characterized the candidate's political record. You can complain that it was exaggerated, that it was incorrect or slanted, but it wasn't personal. It was political! There actually is a difference!

Now I'm sure plenty of people will tell me that "personal" ought to include anything that specifies an individual person. That would fit with one dictionary definition of the word. But why should we have a problem with a political argument that specifies an individual when that individual is the candidate? He's the candidate; we're allowed to single him out! So the attack wasn't personal in any way that is illegitimate in a political battle. I think the reason the attack was called personal is that it would be lame to admit the real complaint: the attack was strong. The Kerry campaign and the various people who support it, like Matthews, spend a lot of time expressing outrage that their opponents are fighting hard. But it is a political fight. Fight back! Don't whine that it's somehow unfair for Miller to point to your record. Defend your record. Presumably, you've got arguments. If you don't, you deserve to lose.

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