I don’t know that Democrats understand how Republicans experience the attacks Democratic leaders make on them. I’m not sure they know how they sound to us.
In America there is a lot of political integration. Democrats and Republicans are friends. Life forces them to be if they need to be forced, which most don’t. They know each other from the office, Little League, school meetings, the neighborhood. Actually America is mostly filled with people who say not “I’m a Democrat” and “I’m a Republican,” but “I voted for Bush” and “I like McCain” and “I voted for Kerry.” They identify by personal action more than political party, at least in my experience.
Washington is more politically segregated. In Washington, Democrats by and large hang out with Democrats, Republicans with Republicans. This is true in consulting, in think tanks, in journals, in Congress. If you work for a Democratic senator, the office is full of Democrats. The people with whom you share inside jokes and the occasional bitter aside are Democrats. The “neighborhood” in which you go to meetings during your long days is Democratic. The same is true for Republicans.
And it’s inevitable. The structure of things decrees it, as does human nature. Like-minded people seek like-minded people for stimulating conversation and more.
So in some key ways in Washington, the most politically engaged individuals in both parties do not understand each other. This expresses itself in certain assumptions. Democrats think Republicans are mean. Republicans know Democrats are the mean party.
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Knowing that, let’s do a thought experiment. Close your eyes and imagine this.
President Bush is introduced at a great gathering in Topeka, Kan. It is the evening of June 9, 2005. Ruffles and flourishes, “Hail to the Chief,” hearty applause from a packed ballroom. Mr. Bush walks to the podium and delivers the following address.
- “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I want to speak this evening about how I see the political landscape. Let me jump right in. The struggle between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is a struggle between good and evil—and we’re the good. I hate Democrats. Let’s face it, they have never made an honest living in their lives. Who are they, really, but people who are intent on abusing power, destroying the United States Senate and undermining our Constitution? They have no shame.
“But why would they? They have never been acquainted with the truth. You ever been to a Democratic fundraiser? They all look the same. They all behave the same. They have a dictatorship, and suffer from zeal so extreme they think they have a direct line to heaven. But what would you expect when you have a far left extremist base? We cannot afford more of their leadership. I call on you to help me defeat them!”
Imagine Mr. Bush saying those things, and the crowd roaring with lusty delight. Imagine John McCain saying them for that matter, or any other likely Republican candidate for president, or Ken Mehlman, the head of the Republican National Committee.
Can you imagine them talking this way? Me neither. Because they wouldn’t.
Messrs. Bush, McCain, et al., would find talk like that to be extreme, damaging, desperate. They would understand it would tend to add a new level of hysteria to political discourse, and that’s not good for the country. I think they would know such talk is unworthy in a leader, or potential leader, of a great democracy. I think they would understand that talk like that is destructive to the ties that bind—and to the speaker’s political prospects.
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Why don’t Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean know this? And what does it mean that they do not know it?
For as you know, the color-coded phrases in the “Bush speech” above come from speeches and statements given by Sen. Clinton and Democratic chairman Dean recently. (Mrs. Clinton’s comments are in green and Mr. Dean’s in purple, and I changed “right” to “left.”)
Clinton is likely the next Democratic nominee for president. Mr. Dean is the head of the Democratic Party. They are important and powerful. They may one day run the country. It is disturbing that they speak as they do.
How do people who are not part of the Democratic base react to their statements? I think something like this: What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they understand they lower things with their name calling and bitter language? If this is how they feel free to present themselves in public, what will they do and say in private if they ever run the country?
If Mr. Bush ever spoke this way, most Republicans would feel embarrassment. I would be among the legions who would denounce his statement. Democrats are half the country; it is offensive to label them as hateful, it’s wrong. Even though we’re torn by disagreements, there is an old and unspoken tradition that we’re all in this together, we’re all citizens together. It is destructive to act against this tradition.
One assumes all the media, especially the MSM, would treat the speech as if it were an epochal event in the Bush presidency, and the beginning of the end. They would say he was unleashing the dark forces of division; they would label his statement as manipulative, malevolent, immature.
And they’d be right.
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There is a tradition of political generosity that prevails among the normal people of America, a certain live-and-let-live-ness. That is why Little League games don’t break out in fistfights, at least over politics. You don’t shun people in the neighborhood because they’re Democrats, and you don’t inform the Republican in the next cubicle that he is evil, lazy and racist. That just doesn’t play in America. There are breaches, exceptions, incidents. We are not angels. But by and large even though we disagree with each other, and even if we come to dislike each other, we maintain, for reasons both moral and practical, decorum. Civility. We keep a lid on it. We don’t lower it to the level of invective. We don’t by nature seek to divide.
When you have been in Washington long enough and have become consumed by your place in the political struggle, you can lose sight of the American arrangement. You can become harsh and shrill. You can become the sort of person who would start the fight at the Little League game. You can become—how might a columnist, as opposed to a political leader, put it?—a jackass. But not a funny one, a destructive one, the type that can knock down the barn it took the farmer years to build.
The comportment of Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean is actually not worthy of America. Their statements suggest they are in no way equal to the country they seek to lead. And something tells me that sooner or later America is going to tell them. But in a generous, mature and fair-minded way.