Wednesday, November 21, 2001

While our soldiers, sailors and airmen are fighting in Afghanistan, and our president and security services are struggling to stay a step ahead of the next terrorist attack, far lower down on the political food chain some of the usual suspects are shrewdly looking for partisan advantage.

Our old friends James Carville (Bill Clinton’s political operative), Stanley Greenberg (Mr. Clinton’s pollster) and Bob Shrum (the Democrats’ master media manipulator) have issued a strategy memo to fellow Democrats based on their polling and focus grouping since September 11.

If you find Osama bin Laden, anthrax and exploding airplanes to be uncheerful thoughts, you may want to ingest a handful of prozac capsules before reading the Carville Gang’s memo. While most politicians of both parties are successfully struggling against the inherent competitive partisan pressures in order to speak and act for America in this time of danger, Mr. Carville has a different idea.

According to the Hotline political report, the Carville Gang’s memo coolly points out that “[While President Bush is popular now] voter doubts are close to the surface.” For the less astute of his fellow Democrats, Mr. Carville cautions that, of course “Democrats should not give voice to these doubts.” If he were in a slightly different line of work, he would surely advise his clients to wear ski masks before holding up liquor stores.

The memo goes on to advise fellow Democrats that while “it is important to support the president and set a tone that lacks a sharp partisan quality, [Democrats] should feel free to attack wrong-headed Republican congressional initiatives, even separating the House Republicans from the president.” It’s a good guess that Mr. Carville doesn’t have a “United We Stand” bumper sticker on his car.

Mr. Carville goes on to advise Democrats that in order to help “set up the congressional choice for next year” Democrats should characterize Mr. Bush’s domestic policies as causing “economic damage, undermining social programs and geared towards big business.” Apparently, in Mr. Carville’s view, he is being sufficiently patriotic if he says, in essence: “Support our president even though he is a plutocratic parasitic insect that sucks the blood of the working people.”

Mr. Bush has gone out of his way not to lean on Democrats in Congress. He has met them much more than half-way on almost every issue that has come up since September 11. Mr. Bush has not once yielded to the obvious temptation of threatening Democrats with his politically unnerving 90 percent public approval numbers. Such gentlemanly self-restraint has not always been exercised in the White House.

Back in 1995, Mr. Carville’s former boss the sometimes husband of the former first lady lashed out at Republicans after the Oklahoma bombing. He sent out his agents including Mr. Carville to accuse Republicans explicitly of encouraging that terrorist bombing by their allegedly inflammatory political rhetoric. He was, of course, referring to the Republican argument for limited government.

As the then-spokesman for Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, I vividly remember reporters asking me to respond to the White House charge that we had encouraged Timothy McVeigh by our rhetoric. I confess that I am still outraged by that blood libel issued by the former president.

Leading Democrats have voting records and public statements on intelligence and military issues prior to September 11 that could be very embarrassing. But this White House, this president, have refused to traffic in such matters. Mr. Bush correctly recognizes that at a time of national crisis with 5,000 Americans already murdered and all our citizens in imminent danger of further slaughter responsible politicians must avoid personal attacks. Voting records should be judged in the context of their times.

We can, and should, debate policy. From civil liberties to airport safety to economic policies, reasonable people will disagree on the most useful approaches to solving our national problems. But too much is at stake now to permit the Carville contagion to re-infect the body politic. Already, according to U.S. News & World Report, House Democrats are calling conservatives the “Taliban GOP” and are accusing Mr. Bush of racism for not attending black postal workers’ funerals.

We were lucky in the 1990s. The sulphurous politics of personal destruction came at a time of peace and prosperity. As it turned out, ineffective government and an angrily divided electorate did no immediate harm (other than failing to prepare for the dangers that followed). As a political player in the 1990s, I was not blameless for those conditions.

But as I watched the World Trade Center towers collapse upon all that humanity on September 11, I knew instantly that, whatever the justification for the politics of the 1990s, all that had to change now.

Of course, both parties will try to win elections. But winning a few congressional or Senate seats even winning control of Congress isn’t worth the price of dividing the nation at this moment of mortal danger. We can all live under a Speaker Gephardt or a Speaker Hastert. We can’t live under the death sentence the terrorists would place on us. It’s time for responsible Democrats to just say no to Carville and company.

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