Compare the following two statements currently floating 'round the blogosphere:
"I'm saddened, saddened that this President failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war. Saddened that we have to give up one life because this President couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country." (Tom Daschle, March 18)
"The last seven months have involved six months of diplomatic failure and one month of military success. The first days after military victory indicate the pattern of diplomatic failure is beginning once again and threatens to undo the effects of military victory." (Newt Gingrich, April 22)
Here's what happened following Senator Daschle's comments: Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert issued a statement saying that they "may not undermine the President as he leads us into war and they may not comfort our adversaries, but they come mighty close." Republican National Committee chairman Marc Racicot termed them "divisive and brazen political posturing" and said it was "disheartening and shameful" that the Senate minority leader would "blame America first." Senate majority leader Bill Frist added that he considered the remarks to be "deeply disappointing," even "irresponsible." Daschle's likely opponent for re-election, former Representative John Thune, tried his hand at wit, observing that Daschle sounded like he came "from the south of France, not from South Dakota."
These Republican attack dogs are not merely the primary shareholders of a political party. They are also the proprietors of much of the cable-television/talk-radio universe, where their comments were faithfully rehearsed. From stage far right, as if on cue, Fox's Sean Hannity called Daschle's remarks "disgraceful." Fox's idea of a liberal, Morton Kondracke, called them "totally unconscionable." Fox's idea of a moderate, Bill O'Reilly, announced, "The South Dakota senator finds himself in the same position as Trent Lott. His credibility is finished." Fox fellow-traveler (and frequent Republican funder) Lou Dobbs, speaking on CNN, intoned, "Senator Daschle has every reason to be saddened, but by his own words and deeds."
Things got so bad for Daschle, and the media voices in his defense were so few and far between, that his re-election committee felt compelled to send out a mass e-mail (later reprinted in Salon) begging supporters to "take the time to defend Senator Daschle from his critics." "Please speak out," the authors pleaded.
Here's what happened after Newt Gingrich made his comments: Nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing: Conservative pundits Frank Gaffney and Ramesh Ponnuru wrote columns praising Gingrich's remarks in National Review, joining his attack on Colin Powell and the chorus of other attacks on the Secretary of State that regularly appear in The Weekly Standard, The New Republic and elsewhere in the increasingly conservative opinion media. (Although many saw the latest round of Powell-bashing as the symptom of an even more ambitious power-grab by Donald Rumsfeld and his neocon cadres, the White House soon went on record disapproving of the vitriol, and that was that. The attacks on Powell ended, at least for now.)
L'affaire Daschle/Gingrich is just exhibit A of how our politics are now being driven by a toxic combination of jingoism, self-righteousness and nearly divine faith in the rectitude of a President who has cast off the traditional strictures of consensus politics in favor of a no-holds-barred assault on those who stand in the way of his extremist agenda. To question the path of the President is to invite immediate accusations of naïveté at best, disloyalty at worst--and most often both.
I had the opportunity to meet with a group of Democratic senators recently to brief them on my book What Liberal Media?, and while they were enormously concerned about the never-ending avalanche of slime thrown their way by this conservative perpetual-motion machine, I don't think I am breaking any press-stopping news when I report that they don't have a clue how to handle it.
What is to be done? Well, plenty, in the long run. But in the short run, how about at least fighting back? Senator John Kerry performed a salutary service for his team recently when he refused to apologize despite finding himself at the wrong end of the conservative Republican rifle range. Seeking, perhaps, to cop a bit of whatever the Dean campaign is smoking, the former war hero made the point (frequently heard at antiwar demos) that the United States could do with some of that "regime change" that Dr. Wolfowitz had prescribed for the Iraqis. "What we need now is not just a regime change in Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but we need a regime change in the United States," Kerry said.
Of course, Kerry was speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and his point was simply to argue that he--or one of his Democratic colleagues--would make a better President than Bush. Well, Kerry got much the same treatment as Daschle from Republican Party leaders. Hastert and Frist attacked, with the latter saying Kerry's "petty, partisan insults launched solely for personal political gain are highly inappropriate at a time when American men and women are in harm's way," while House majority leader Tom DeLay termed Kerry's words "desperate and inappropriate." An unnamed Bush adviser got clever as well: "He looks French" was the word from the White House. Rupert Murdoch's New York Post weighed in with the eloquent, "What a jerk."
But Kerry showed how this kind of thing might be taken on, without apology or concession. "I don't need any lessons in patriotism or in caring about America," the famed Vietnam vet told his fellow Democrats at an Atlanta dinner. "We're fighting for the rights of Americans." The funny thing about many Americans is they don't care what you stand for, as long as you stand for something. Kerry's on the right track. The cable networks, the talk-radio shows, the national newspapers, the whole echo-chamber gives the far-right an unmatchable advantage in public debate. All the Democrats have going for them these days are the issues--if only they would stand up for a few of them.