- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Autumn ushered in a particularly mean season in America’s always rough-and-tumble political climate. Trying to exploit a variety of issues for partisan advantage, Democratic presidential candidates are erecting an edifice of rhetorical excess. From the economy, to Iraq, to finding new appreciation for the independent counsel law following alleged leaks of national security information, there is a palpable rise in venomous attacks on President Bush among some Democrats. Their rhetorical bravado ticks up every time the president’s poll numbers slip.

Raising and debating policy questions is a legitimate and healthy part of American political discourse. Yet, the increasingly poisonous nature of the attacks could backfire. No doubt there are deep emotions in America’s political topography following September 11, but which ones will motivate voter action? Some Democrats believe negative broadsides will propel their party to the White House, when in reality they could represent the path to political perdition. There are other public yearnings that deserve exploration.

“The attacks have moved beyond political rhetoric and into the realm of political hate speech. No one has ever won the White House by demeaning the presidency,” Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said last week.

First among equals in minting the currency of political hate is former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. He reminded the other Democratic presidential aspirants recently that “We need to remember the enemy here is George Bush.” The enemy?

But there is more rhetorical shock and awe. Mr. Dean, according to a USA Today piece in late August, “has stopped comparing Bush to the Taliban and calling his behavior ‘despicable.’ He also charged that “this president has told more lies than George Washington ever denied telling.”

Yet, Mr. Dean has helpers in erecting the edifice of excess. Sen. John Edwards said Mr. Bush “has no health care plan; is incapable of cracking down on corporate cheating; and has declared war on work.” Rep. Richard Gephardt called President Bush a “miserable failure” and “the worst president.” While the Rev. Al Sharpton said, “If President Clinton had told the lie that George Bush told, he would be impeached.”

Appealing to an angry, partisan Democratic voter base explains part of the escalation in the rhetorical arms race. The deeply held hatred toward the president is the topic for another column, but whichever Democrat can motivate these people to contribute money and votes will win the party’s presidential nomination.

Yet, a more fundamental shift in the grammar of modern political debate has also occurred. Over the past several campaign cycles, participants in the American electoral culture breached some invisible levy of decency and decorum — and the poison is now spilling over the banks. Today’s presidential campaign is in sharp contrast to the past.

Describing the 1960 presidential campaign, Chris Matthews, in his book “Kennedy and Nixon,” paints a radically different picture of the tools and tone of the political combatants. While there was no love lost between these two presidential aspirants, their discourse was very different. During one of the debates, according to Mr. Matthews, Nixon told “the largest American political audience ever assembled that his rival was not only a man of unquestioned sincerity but one of unassailable motive.”

University of Virginia Sociologist James Davison Hunter in his book “Culture Wars” argues that the poisonous rhetoric in today’s electoral arena is caused in part by journalists “filtering public speech by selecting comparatively small sound bites.” Mr. Hunter notes that “between the 1968 and 1988 presidential elections, the average sound bite decreased from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds.” He argues “these factors create tremendous pressure to capture the attention of a fleeting audience through simplified and inflated political discourse.”

Politically, “inflated discourse” is a two-edged sword. While the partisan barbs aimed at President Bush motivate Democrats, they also inspire Republicans. “For every Democrat that gets energized by the hate speech, there is a Republican that gets excited about defending the President,” one senior GOP strategist said.

Yet, tactically, the Democrats may have gone too far. Their rhetoric is certainly stirring Republicans to action. But, in an epoch of terrorism, there is yet another side of the American political psyche with even more robust rhetorical and political potential — hope, courage and confidence always trump anger, fear and insecurity. Presenting this alternative vision for Americans is a message Mr. Bush captured while shouting into a bullhorn in the rubble of the twin towers. He should repeat these words and capture this spirit often in the year ahead.

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