- The Washington Times - Monday, August 26, 2002

Looking for clues to the electorate's mood in the summertime run-up to the elections? Make note: Voters are turned off by poisonous political rhetoric and over-the-top campaign combat.
Voters sent this message loud and clear in Georgia's congressional primary last week when Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a skilled practitioner in the art of campaign invective, was defeated by a more moderate-sounding Democratic challenger.
Mrs. McKinney has served five terms representing her predominantly black, Democratic district, but this time the voters including many of her previous black supporters had heard enough and wanted her out.
Earlier this year, she suggested that President Bush knew in advance about the September 11 terrorist attacks, but chose to do nothing because the costs of war would benefit supporters in the defense and oil industries. Accepting campaign money from radical Muslim activists that other Democrats turned down and her outspoken pro-Palestinian rhetoric didn't help either.
Droves of white Republicans voted for her black opponent, former state Judge Denise Majette (cross-party voting is allowed in Georgia), which was the chief reason Mrs. McKinney lost.
She was also unable to draw the black vote that has helped to keep her in Congress for the past decade. There was a clear split in the black community over her inflammatory accusations against the president and Israel. A number of black leaders, including former Atlanta mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and baseball legend Hank Aaron, refused to endorse her this time.
Black business leaders also saw her as a polarizing figure who was not working on the issues they cared about, such as strengthening the economy and creating jobs.
In an election year when Democrats are worried that their political base is not energized enough, and where Democratic turnout in their party primaries is down, Democratic leaders are heating up their campaign rhetoric against Mr. Bush and the Republicans. Much of it is over the top.
In a speech to the Democratic National Committee in Las Vegas earlier this month, DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe lit into Mr. Bush, accusing him of using the war on terrorism for political purposes and manipulating the economy up and down for his own political gain. Even for a no-holds-barred politico like Mr. McAuliffe, who learned the art of infighting from the master, Bill Clinton, this was pretty wild stuff.
But the political pleas throughout the Democratic leadership are to step up the rhetoric and use highly charged words. "We need to get the party's juices flowing to activate our base," one veteran Democratic strategist told me.
Al Gore also seems to be getting a little carried away lately. With a legion of Democratic presidential rivals breathing down his neck, he now feels the need to make accusations that seem beyond the pale. In a speech to the 21st Century Democrats, he said that Mr. Bush's tax cuts had created an environment of "unfettered corporate greed." Really? What does he call what happened in the Clinton-Gore decade of the 1990s, when most of the corporate accounting abuses took root? Perhaps the wildest example of over-the-top rhetoric was heard at the Connecticut Democratic Convention last month, where party activist Ned Coll delivered the invocation. Mr. Coll called Republican Gov. John Rowland "a snake" and a "glorified thug," among other things, and then added, "death to the prince of darkness." That was too much for some Democrats. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman called Mr. Coll's remarks "offensive and indefensible" and "vicious."
Nastiness, of course, can be found in both parties. In South Dakota's Republican gubernatorial primary, state Attorney General Mark Barnett and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby went at each other tooth-and-nail for months, spending $3.5 million between them. However, the voters overwhelmingly chose former state Senate Majority Leader Mike Rounds, who refused to go negative. Notably, Mr. Rounds spent less than $250,000 on his entire campaign.
Don't get me wrong. Americans have always loved a good, tough, spirited political fight over ideas. They respect a candidate who stands up for principles and beliefs, refusing to be pushed around. They like candidates who, like Ronald Reagan, refuse to talk in "pale pastels," and use bold, clear language that says what they mean. But they do not like the venom that Mrs. McKinney made her stock in trade and that coarsens the nation's political dialogue.
At a time when our country faces many serious challenges and legions of enemies who want to kill as many of us as they can, the message from the voters is to cool the hyperbolic rhetoric and stick to the issues that matter most. For those who love the biting, eye-gouging and below-the-belt punches, there's always professional wrestling.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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