Lately, political dialogue in the nation’s capital has become hostile and hateful — and that’s putting it mildly.
Both sides seem to be contributing to this sad state of affairs, though the poisonous invective that has come out of the Democratic leadership in the past six months has been much worse.
Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean accused Republicans of never "having done an honest day’s work in their lives" and said most of them are white Christians "who all look alike," a remark he did not mean as a compliment. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, compared U.S. military interrogators to the people who ran Hitler’s Nazis death camps and Stalin’s gulag prisons.
Called to the woodshed by Senate leaders when his hate-filled attacks were diverting attention from the Democrats’ message (whatever that may be), Dean slightly toned down his rhetoric. Durbin, after his remarks were called "a disgrace" by Chicago Mayor Daley, his state’s Democratic kingpin, uttered a teary apology of sorts and later told a party fund-raiser that he stood by our U.S. forces fighting the war on terrorism.
Democrats, still licking self-inflicted wounds, said that White House senior adviser Karl Rove’s recent accusation that liberals have been soft on the war on terrorism was worse than anything they had said. But many Democrats weren’t buying that. "I don’t think they (Rove’s remarks) are comparable at all" to Durbin’s Nazi and gulag analogies, says Democrat Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute and former director of the Congressional Budget Office.
While these political-attack episodes may be over for the time being, the trench warfare climate they represent persists, fostering a deep concern among former congressional and White House leaders who fear it is eroding our democratic institutions of government and its ability to deal with the most intractable problems facing our country
Listen to what former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta has to say:
"Washington seems to be totally immersed in a ‘gotcha’ kind of gamesmanship that is not in any way conducive to finding solutions to these kinds of problems," the former House Democratic chairman tells me.
"Everybody is locked in this battle for power, as opposed to any effort to govern the country," Panetta says. "When I go to Washington and talk to my former colleagues on both sides of the aisle, they don’t see any effort to try to deal with these major issues. It is really all about how you can beat the other side."
Listen to former Sen. Warren Rudman, New Hampshire Republican, who heads the bipartisan Concord Coalition:
"There is a lack of trust and a lack of collegiality between people. I saw it on occasion when I was in the Senate, but nothing like it is now," he tells me. "The whole atmosphere has changed. You walk on to the Senate floor and in many ways it’s like walking into a fire pit, literally."
Driving much of this tirade is a deep frustration among Democratic officials after a decade of unending election losses, political decline and a misguided belief that they must make increasingly incendiary charges to get their message heard above the news media din.
"To get the attention of the media you have to shout louder and have more extreme views," Reischauer says.
The Democrats’ repeated losses in the last half-dozen elections "is one of the factors" that has embittered Democrats, Rudman says, convincing their leadership that the only way to succeed is to intensify their attacks on the other side.
"There’s no question the Democrats in the House and Senate are very frustrated that they haven’t been able to make a lot of electoral progress, and I think that adds to the level of anger," Rudman adds.
Former Indiana Congressman Timothy Roemer, who served on the Sept. 11 terrorism commission, says "there is not only a poisonous partisan attitude in Washington, but it seems to be paralyzing Congress from acting on some of the most important national security, economic and energy-related issues facing Americans today. It is more divisive than I have seen in my 20 years in Washington."
Leon Panetta, sounding more worried about the future of our country than I can ever remember in dozens of interviews with him, thinks that if the present climate of invective and inaction continues, voters are going to retaliate in the next election.
"People are turned off because they don’t sense that there is an honest effort to solve these problems because it is easier for people to just call each other names," he says.
"Democrats and Republicans better be aware of the fact that there is a limit to the frustration of voters in this country," he says.
With the war against terrorism as deadly as ever and our country in a skeptical and somewhat less confident mood, this is no time for bickering or personal political attacks. American soldiers are putting their lives on the line to protect us from a shadowy and vicious enemy. We owe them some measure of unity and collegiality here at home while they fight and die for us in distant and dangerous lands.
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