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Put Up or Shut Up

By Russ Smith | Posted 1/25/2006

There’s a mailbox at the corner of North Charles Street and West Highfield Road that was decorated not so long ago by an imaginative soul with the words BUCK FUSH! and CHIMPEACH! As graffiti goes, this effort isn’t especially noteworthy, but in passing the box nearly every day, I have to wonder whether the national Democratic Party is aware of how difficult it will be to win back Congress this fall and the presidency in 2008.

It’s not that the Democrats have a monopoly on shrill partisan attacks—Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, trying to find traction for his doomed White House run, is prone to inflated rhetoric, as are media windbags like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity—but a minority party has to offer centrist voters more than derisive slogans to regain power.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic minority leader, was obliged to apologize last week for a news release that tarred the Republicans as a single entity caught in a “culture of corruption,” and continued, “The idea of Republicans reforming themselves is like asking John Gotti to clean up organized crime.” Washington Post reporter Charles Babington suggested on Jan. 20 that Reid’s indiscretion is politics as usual, but the real question is just who’s advising Democrats on the upcoming midterm elections. The criminal indictment of lobbyist Jack Abramoff is a godsend to Democrats, and there’s no need to pile on with incendiary hyperbole.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, after a meeting last Friday with House Democratic colleagues about the presidential-sanctioned National Security Agency wiretaps at home and abroad, said, “If [George W. Bush] were in Germany in 1933, he would not have required the Enabling Act to pass the Reichstag to claim the power.” Almost immediately thereafter, according to The New York Times, Nadler’s spokesman tried to squash the obvious analogy to Hitler by saying that the congressman had “picked an example that he shouldn’t have.”

Equating Bush with Hitler, King George III, Stalin, or Saddam Hussein might energize the left wing of the party, but Democratic politicians ought not indulge themselves in such comparisons. Likewise, when Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York told a Harlem church audience on Martin Luther King Day that the GOP-controlled Congress “has been run like a plantation, and you know what I’m talking about,” it was a colossal mistake. Clinton, still polling well ahead of other Democratic presidential contenders, doesn’t need to win over the liberal wing of her party.

Not to outdone, Senate candidate Paul Hackett of Ohio, an Iraq War veteran who nearly won a special House race last year in an overwhelmingly Republican district, told the Columbus Dispatch, “The Republican Party has been hijacked by the religious fanatics that, in my opinion, aren’t a whole lot different than Osama bin Laden and a lot of other religious nuts around the world.” Hackett is trailing competitor Sherrod Brown for the right to oppose the unpopular incumbent, Sen. Mike DeWine, but his outbursts, even if he loses the primary, won’t make it easier for his party to pick up a Senate seat.

A Democrat like Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who learned the art of politics as a member of Bill Clinton’s administration, must have winced at those comments. Emanuel is a traditional liberal, but he’s also pragmatic, a rare quality in the Democratic Party today. Instead of whining about the likely Supreme Court confirmation of Samuel Alito, Emanuel told any reporter who’d listen that in order to pass a “progressive” agenda Democrats first have to win elections.

At the very least, Democratic candidates ought to leave the sloganeering and Bush bashing to the media, activists, and celebrities and not get their own hands dirty. It’s one thing for celebrities like Harry Belafonte (who called Bush “the biggest terrorist in the world” while in Venezuela), Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, Sean Penn, Gore Vidal, Harold Pinter, and Alice Walker, all of whom affixed their names on a full-page ad that ran in The New York Times on Jan. 20—”We Demand Bush Step Down & Take Your Program With You!”—and quite another for an elected official to put Bush in the same category as Hitler or al-Qaida.

It’s possible, though unlikely, if the Democrats take over the House in November that Bush could be “chimpeached.” But, as Emanuel or Southern Maryland’s sensible Rep. Steny Hoyer would say, first they have to actually win more elections than the Republicans.

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