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Jewish World Review May 18, 2004 / 29 Iyar, 5764

John H. Fund

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Anger Management: Dems start to realize that a campaign of hate won't beat President Bush | It's a cliché this is becoming the meanest year in politics yet. But it's true. Last week, Mike Lavigne, the spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, admitted calling a state Supreme Court justice "a Nazi." When his boss, Democratic Party chairman Charles Soecthting, was asked if an apology was due, he said, "I don't have a problem that Mike said it."

Then there's Sen. Ted Kennedy, who told a startled Senate last week that "Saddam's torture chambers have been reopened under new management, United States management." Some conservative talk show hosts, such as Michael Savage, have railed against gays and immigrants while they question John Kerry's patriotism. On the left, Bush bashing has become a national sport.

Prominent Democrats are beginning to realize that hatred of President Bush won't defeat him in November. One of the reasons that Mr. Bush continues to lead John Kerry in polls despite the bad news from Iraq is that many voters tune out criticism of the president when it turns hysterical. "It isn't enough for you to be venomous and be angry," Bill Clinton urged a fund-raiser last week. "Don't be mad. Smile. Be glad."

That's good advice. Republicans shed their image as dour naysayers only when they embraced Ronald Reagan's inspirational optimism. One of the chief complaints Democratic consultants have about Mr. Kerry is his gloomy demeanor and pessimistic message. They're trying to engineer a makeover.

If liberals are going to follow Bill Clinton's advice and become happy warriors, they have some housecleaning to do first. The very group he spoke to,, belongs to the paranoid school of American politics. In January, it held a contest to select the best ads that told "the truth about George Bush's policies." Two of the entries posted on the group's website compared Mr. Bush to Hitler. One ad morphed an image of Hitler into the president and likened "1945's war crimes" to "2003's foreign policy." Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle gave an eloquent speech last week at the University of Kansas calling on people of all ideological views to stop "demonizing those with whom we disagree." He called the ad "outrageous."

Certainly there are rhetorical excesses on the right too. High-octane conservative Web sites feature vitriolic personal attacks on Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Teresa Heinz Kerry and others. But some liberal activists go further. Michael Goodwin of New York's Daily News spent a day listening to Air America, the new liberal talk-radio network, and found he had to endure hours of "rancid venom." Host Randi Rhodes compared U.S. prisons in Iraq to the "Nazi gulag," a mixed ideological metaphor as well as an inflammatory one.

Nor are Nazi allusions limited to talk radio. Seymour Hersh, who broke the story of the Iraqi prisons in The New Yorker, appeared on CNN last week and said a picture of two guard dogs snarling at a prisoner was "a scene from we know what, you know, [the] Third Reich." When host Wolf Blitzer asked him to be more specific, Mr. Hersh changed the subject. is financed in part by billionaire George Soros, who last year also compared Mr. Bush to Hitler and said that Israel was "likely" a big but secret reason for the war in Iraq. Mr. Soros is also a major financial backer of the Media Fund, an anti-Bush group directed by Harold Ickes, who served as President Clinton's deputy chief of staff. When Mr. Ickes was asked what its supporters thought of Mr. Soros's penchant for Bush-Hitler comparisons, Mr. Ickes said "we have not taken heat because of it."

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It's time that liberals police their own and flush out the nests of the most virulent Bush haters. A sure sign that a movement or party is out of power and likely to stay that way is if much of its public image is defined by its fever-swamp fringe. Conservatives had a similar dilemma in the 1960s when journalists were able to tag the movement by its most extreme elements. Liberal author Jonathan Schoenwald has documented how conservative leaders had to move carefully to "exorcise the demons of right-wing extremism." The John Birch Society's opposition to communism morphed into a conspiratorial vision that could label almost anyone a communist sympathizer, including Dwight D. Eisenhower. William F. Buckley and other mainstream conservatives spent years isolating and discrediting the Birchers. It wasn't easy. To blast the Birchers indiscriminately would have risked alienating many committed followers who were only dimly aware of the society's kookiness. To wait too long would have risked tarring the entire conservative movement.

Liberals may not believe they are in a similar position as Mr. Buckley and his allies were two generations ago. But there are clues that the ridicule and fulmination with which liberals attack "that cowboy accident in the White House" are backfiring. Mr. Bush has told Bill Sammon of the Washington Times that that the more he is unfairly attacked, the less likely liberals will be able to convince swing voters he is a bad president.

"Liberals divide into two parts," one network correspondent told me: "those who believe that when the president says he enjoys being 'misunderestimated' that's it a sign of his ignorance, and smarter ones who've figured out he is using it in a joking way to make a point about how he overcomes low expectations." Too many on the left think of Mr. Bush as dumb or an evil manipulator of public opinion, or somehow hold both views simultaneously.

Conservatives have fallen into this trap too. In the 1990s some became so angry with President Clinton that they welcomed the term "Clinton haters." They were convinced that the country would see the light and drive him from office through indictment or impeachment. It's now generally acknowledged that anti-Clinton rhetoric caused Republicans to lose House seats in the 1998 midterm election, and the country never agreed that Mr. Clinton should leave office even though his subsequent actions (such as the midnight pardon of financier Marc Rich) have convinced most historians that Clinton character flaws did indeed have public consequences.

Liberals are now equally convinced the country will see how Mr. Bush's religious fervor and Texas cockiness have led to a quagmire in Iraq and installed extremists in positions of power. No one is suggesting they must stop believing that, but in a time of war they would do both themselves and the country good if they isolated their extremists and muted their own rhetoric more. A Washington Post poll taken last month shows how hard it is to build a winning anti-Bush coalition on anger. When asked how people felt about Bush policies, on a range of enthusiastic to angry, only 18% of voters said they were angry. Even among Democrats those who were angry numbered only 30%.

Sen. Daschle tells a story about a reporter who was startled to see George McGovern attending the 1993 funeral of Pat Nixon and shaking the hand of President Nixon. When the reporter asked Mr. McGovern why he would pay his respects to the wife of a man who had used underhanded tactics to defeat him, the former Democratic presidential nominee replied simply, "You can't keep on campaigning forever." Now the country is in danger of becoming more divided in war at the same time the toxic nature of political discourse is turning off many voters. With almost six months before Election Day, here's hoping that both sides find ways to fight fire without gasoline.

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04/20/04: Arnold Schwarzenegger thinks making laws should be a part-time job. He's right
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03/16/04: The Vanishing Center: In both political parties, the defense of moderation is no virtue
03/09/04: A JFK-NBC Ticket? If Kerry wants to make things interesting, he'll consider Tom Brokaw for veep
03/02/04: As Virginia mulls a tax hike, all Americans should guard their wallets
02/24/04: Marriage of Inconvenience: Why same-sex nuptials make Democrats nervous
02/10/04: Republican Rot: Is Congress's GOP majority becoming as corrupt as the Democrats were?
02/03/04: Moore Trouble: Alabama's former chief justice may challenge Bush for the Religious Right vote
01/13/04: Rage of a Relic: Paul O'Neill is angry that the world has passed him by
01/06/04: Unintended Consequence: How Terry McAuliffe and James Carville created Howard Dean
09/03/03: The Anti-Dean: Why Hillary opposes the Democratic front-runner
06/27/03: The California jurist who may replace Justice O'Connor
06/02/03: Clinton the Hoover: Bill, Hillary and the Dems' political vacuum
05/27/03: Nerd Nirvana: Students are to the right of the faculty even at the U of Chicago
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04/28/03: With the war won, it's time for Bush to master the Senate
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03/05/03: Sunday morning with the BBC
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02/14/02: Reform School: The Shays-Meehan incumbency protection act
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11/01/01: Bush Avoids Politics at His Peril
10/30/01: Cocked Pit: Armed pilots would mean polite skies
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08/03/01: Of grubbing and grabbing: Corporation$ and local government$ perfect "public use"
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07/12/01: He's Still Bread: Despite what you've heard, Gary Condit isn't toast --- yet
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Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
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09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund