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Published: Sunday, 7/4/2004

Political truths are sometimes less than self-evident

BY DAVID M. SHRIBMAN

Hiram Johnson, elected senator five times in California in the first half of the last century, is credited with the brutal insight that truth is the first casualty of war. Truth is usually a casualty of elections, too. And when there's an election during wartime, as there is this year, truth is especially vulnerable.

It's not the fault only of the generals, or of the politicians. It's the press' fault, too. We peddle notions as truths when they might not be, well, true. Here are three truths peddled by many of us knights of the keyboard - the phrase belongs to another Californian, Ted Williams of San Diego, later of left field in Boston - that may be true but which, at midsummer, warrant a second look:

Potentially Specious Truth No. 1: This is one of the most politically polarized periods in history. This highly alliterative phrase has been peddled so often that it's become part of the wallpaper of the election. I'm quite sure I've written it myself, very likely more than once. It's one of the baseline assumptions of Campaign 2004 but it may turn out to be the phrase that launched a thousand shibboleths.

Philip A. Klinkner, a political scientist at New York's Hamilton College, has looked at the contemporary period closely and warns there is little evidence to support this popular idea. Writing in the online political journal The Forum, he argues that there is "little evidence to support the notion that we are rapidly dividing into two Americas," adding that the average American, whether he resides in a Blue (Democratic) or a Red (Republican) area, has "a great degree of exposure to members of the opposing political party."

Professor Klinkner suggests that commentators aren't attentive to the nuances of political choice in various parts of the country. He's probably right, but what may be closer to the truth is that commentators are confusing a nation that is closely divided politically with one that is polarized politically. They're different.

"There are some places that are polarized," says L. Sandy Maisel, the Colby College political scientist. "There are many more places that are no more polarized than before. "

One further wrinkle: It is possible for President Bush to be a polarizing figure even as the nation isn't polarized politically.

P.S. Truth No. 2: The nation's political divisions are so well drawn that undecided voters have vanished as a factor in the November election. This is the political truth that is adding fuel to both parties' organizing efforts, for if there are virtually no undecideds, then it's all the more important to get every last (polarized) partisan to the polls.

This might turn out to be the political alliteration of the politically illiterate. Andrew Kohut, the highly literate pollster who presides over the Pew Research Center, has looked deep into his computer printouts and has discovered what has eluded a horde of commentators: actual undecided voters.

There are, to be sure, considerably fewer of them at this juncture of the campaign than there were in the last three campaigns. But, he writes, the swing vote "is still substantial and certainly large enough to propel either of the presidential candidates to a big victory."

The reverse has been the received wisdom for months. Some Democrats, believing that in an election like this the sensibilities of Republicans counted for nothing and undecided voters amounted to nothing, argued for the selection of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York as the running mate for Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. The thinking: If you believe that persuading your own partisans to vote is more important than persuading swing voters of your virtue, then HRC is the MVP of the pack.

That thinking goes out the window once you examine the Kohut thesis: Swing voters "are distinguished from committed voters by their political moderation and by the fact that they have favorable opinions of both Bush and Kerry."

Truth No. 3: This is a period so rank and rancorous that, to coin a phrase, civility is the first casualty. This is an appealing theory for those who believe, in a curious reversal of the Pangloss Doctrine, that this is the worst of all possible worlds. Possibly not true.

There sure was a humongous hubbub last week over Vice President Dick Cheney's salty remark to Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat. It was almost as if that phrase had never been uttered by a national politician before. Bill Clinton, standing in the mezzanine of the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, told me to do the exact same thing in 1992. He surely doesn't remember it, I've never forgotten it, but in truth it was as meaningless in Pittsburgh a dozen years ago as it was on the Senate floor a few days ago. (The only difference is that I probably deserved it and Senator Leahy probably didn't.)

Sure, partisan tensions are high. They're always high. The political establishment was brutal in its treatment of Jacksonian Democrats. The advocates of gold and silver were contemptuous of each other in the 1890s. Theodore Roosevelt treated his own protege, William Howard Taft, savagely in 1912. Lyndon Johnson did not employ gentleness as majority leader or as president. Is the rivalry between Democrats and Republicans in Washington today substantially harsher than any of that? Here's my answer, the phrase we should employ for all these so-called truths: Think again.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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