“Anarchists,” “extremists,” “fanatics,” “terrorists.” Over-the-top name-calling is a key element of any major political clash. (Just ask our “socialist” president.) And as the countdown clock approached zero in this month’s Shutdown Showdown, House Republicans found themselves hit with some increasingly rough branding.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threw a hard, early punch on the Senate floor last Monday, vowing, “We’re not going to bow to Tea Party anarchists who deny the mere fact that Obamacare is the law…These fanatics really point to disapproval for Obamacare as justification for taking the federal government and our economy hostage to their demands.”
Three days later, the White House kicked it up a notch. Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer informed CNN’s Jake Tapper that Obama is “not for negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest.”
POTUS himself reiterated the crazy-bomber theme in his Friday address to the nation, insisting, “We’re not going to do this under the threat of blowing up the entire economy.”
Perhaps the most caustic anti-Republican riff came from Al Gore. At a Friday speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington, the former VP, in his best high dudgeon, sniffed: “I think the only phrase that describes it is political terrorism. ‘Nice global economy you’ve got there. Be a shame if we had to destroy it. We have a list of demands. If you don’t meet them all by our deadline, we’ll blow up the global economy.’”
The House Republicans’ rhetorical promotion from garden-variety hostage takers to full-fledged terrorists has rubbed their teammates the wrong way. Via Twitter, Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer demanded an apology for Pfeiffer’s “Extreme & over the top” comparison. Radio yakker Hugh Hewitt proclaimed it “disgusting.” Brad Dayspring, top talker for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, got into a Twitter war with former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau (who, for his part, backed the terrorist metaphor as “100% accurate”). The sensitive souls at Breitbart.com, meanwhile, have expressed great distress at the Dems’ uncivil discourse, as have sympathetic commenters across the blogosphere.
For all the conservative piety and moral outrage, the basic terrorism parallel doesn’t seem particularly beyond the pale as political rhetoric goes. Sure, it’s hyperbolic and inflammatory, and revels in violent imagery in the way that partisan squabbles almost always do these days. (“Death panels,” anyone?) But as my esteemed colleague Michael Tomasky had some fun pointing out Monday, from a purely mechanical perspective the metaphor functions better than the old hostage-taking one.
That said, critics of the House shutdown brigade should take care not to go that one bridge too far. Cautionary case in point: former Bushie Matt Dowd and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm appeared to bipartisanally lose their minds during their Sunday gabfest on This Week. There they were, kicking it with George Stephanopoulos, when Dowd burst out with this observation on the Shutdown Showdown. “After watching your interview with the foreign minister of Iran,” he marveled to his host, “it’s somewhat amazing and ironic that more reasonableness and enlightenment is coming out of the Middle East than is coming out of Washington, D.C., these days. With everything happening with Syria and the chemical weapons and all that.”
WTF? Did this guy just compare the behavior of elected officials in his own party—unfavorably—to two of the world’s most despotic regimes?
But wait! Determined not to be outdone by a Republican, Granholm followed up with this: “It is mind-blowing this week that we see leaders of our most, biggest global adversaries, Iran, Syria—to your point—acting more rationally than the House Tea Party Republicans, that they are willing to take whole country, the whole economy down!”
No. No. No. No. No. What are you guys thinking? In the time-honored tradition of political labeling, you can be as nasty as you want so long as you keep the insults respectfully generic. Smear someone as a communist if you must, but don’t compare him to Stalin—or even Kim Jong-un. Deride them as a dangerous anti-government lunatic, but don’t invoke the name of Timothy McVeigh. Talk all you want about how the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre has the blood of innocent children on his hands, but don’t suggest he is as bad as Adam Lanza or Dylan Klebold.
Yes, certain segments of the Republican House conference have adopted a hard-line kamikaze (yet another popular, bloody metaphor!) approach to the budget/Obamacare fight. But tossing Iran and Syria into the mix, no matter how flippantly, introduces a mountain of grisly, contentious, still painfully fresh baggage that undermines any point the speaker might hope to make. That level of specificity jacks up the emotional meter too high, even as it throws open the door for critics to subject your words to a level of literal scrutiny never intended, to accuse you of drawing false equivalencies, and generally to dismiss you a clueless, unserious twit.
This ongoing budget train wreck (!) is painful for all sane people to behold. But there is no need to make it even more excruciating by starting a bogus fight over whether John Boehner might sink so low as to use sarin gas on his Democratic colleagues. Keep it vague, people. Don’t get too clever with your insults.
And for God’s sake, keep Hitler out of it altogether.