If only, Bill Clinton mused out loud, if only Republicans could be as thoughtful and considerate of their political foes as Democrats are. The problem is that the only way the GOP can win, he complained earlier this year, is “to convince people we’re space aliens. They have no guilt and no shame. I mean, they’ll say anything.” Unlike Mr. Clinton. Unlike his party. Democrats don’t have to resort to ill-mannered ad hominem attacks. “We can talk about honest differences,” he said.
This is a man who suggested earlier this year that Republicans were willing to see children die if that’s what it took to uphold the “theory” that Americans have a constitutional right to keep and bear firearms. This is a man who said party differences over the wisdom of sending U.S. troops to the Balkans showed the GOP had decided saving a million Muslim lives just “wasn’t worth the trouble,” as though Republican lawmakers had opted to reorganize their sock drawers instead. Honest differences?
Following Mr. Clinton’s lead, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has now decided to criminalize a policy dispute of its own with Texas Gov. George W. Bush. It’s not just any crime that the governor has committed either, the group says in an ad. It’s a capital offense.
The NAACP advertisement recreates in stark black and white the ghastly dragging death of James Byrd in Texas. It leaves the body of the victim to the viewer’s horrified imagination, but not the political implication of what had happened. As the pickup truck in the ad picks up speed, a heavy chain attached to it with an invisible but awful burden, one hears the voice of Byrd’s daughter, saying, “I’m Renee Mullins, James Byrd’s daughter. On June 7, 1998, in Texas, my father was killed. He was beaten, chained and dragged three miles to his death all because he was black. So when Gov. George W. Bush refused to support hate crimes legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again. Call George W. Bush and tell him to support hate crimes legislation. We won’t be dragged away from our future.” (Emphasis added.)
That’s the way the NAACP characterizes the failure of Texas lawmakers and Mr. Bush to support proposed “hate crimes” legislation. The bill would have increased penalties for those who, with bias aforethought, commit crimes against select groups minorities, homosexuals and others. The organization’s message is plain: Not once but twice it argues that opposing hate-crimes legislation is the moral equivalent of dragging someone three miles to his death. Mr. Bush’s opposition therefore makes him the moral equivalent of a racist killer.
In fact, Texas already had a hate-crimes statute in effect at the time, but it punished criminals who attacked members of any group or class out of premeditated prejudice. Mr. Bush and the Texas Senate didn’t see any reason to pass a law whose message was that some people were less deserving of protection from haters than others. So the bill died. In view of the fact that two of Mr. Byrd’s killers got the death penalty and the other got life in prison, it’s hard to see what hate crimes could have added to the ultimate sanction. Perhaps the NAACP thinks Texas should jail the remains of the murderers following their execution.
Meanwhile Democratic Party leaders interested in distinguishing “honest differences” from the dishonest variety have done nothing to leash their partisan allies at the NAACP. Al Gore has carefully looked the other way, and on Sunday vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman told “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert that based on what he had heard, “I don’t think there’s anything factually wrong, and she’s just expressing an opinion” an opinion shared by the NAACP that Mr. Bush is in league with racist murderers. Evidently that’s fine with Mr. Lieberman.
Try and imagine, as the folks at the Media Research Center have, what would have happened had the conservative group which ran the infamous Willy Horton ads in 1988 closed with comments from the family of Horton’s victims: “When Gov. Michael Dukakis released convicted killer Willie Horton for the weekend, it was like being stabbed all over again.” Imagine the Democratic and journalistic allegations of race-baiting. Where is the outcry today?
Ironically, by imputing the very worst motives to Mr. Bush someone who, the ad implies, might be as comfortable in the trappings of the Ku Klux Klan as in those of the presidency and by making allegations out of all proportion to reality, the NAACP invites scrutiny of its own motives. If the ad cannot serve the truth, it can serve the political purpose of getting minorities to the voting booth to protect themselves from a governor with metaphorical blood on his hands and responsibility for racist mayhem on his record. Outside of Al Gore’s weepy recounting of his sister’s death at the hands of Big Tobacco, it is hard to imagine more cavalier exploitation of untimely death for political ends.
Another irony is that while the NAACP hopes the ad generates horror over Mr. Bush’s politics, the organization’s analogy unintentionally discounts the way in which Byrd died: If a dragging death really is no more serious than a political dispute over the best way to deal with racist killers, then what’s the big deal?
That’s reasoning a racist or it seems the NAACP could love. Democrats and activists could avoid keeping such awkward company if they really did stick to detailing honest differences with Mr. Bush. Next to these race-baiters, space aliens are starting to look pretty good.