2003-11-14 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

The Costs of Political Discourse
The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky The Costs of Political Discourse

Is there a cost to the harsh tilt of political rhetoric we’re seeing in the latest election cycle? Sure politics is notoriously messy and can get pretty ugly, with candidates hurling vicious and often misleading accusations at one another in the heat of battle. And it’s true that former President Bill Clinton was himself the recipient of what seemed like a barrage of endless carping and invective from conservative opponents... never mind all that ammunition he so obligingly provided them with. But the steady drumbeat of Bush bashing that has now become de rigeur in Washington, on the Democratic campaign trail, and in the media itself has pushed the level of political discourse to new lows. We need to think beyond its immediate political ramifications and ask what the real costs of this are to America.

When reporter Jonathan Chait can write in The New Republic that he "hates" George W. Bush, when Senator Edward Kennedy calls Bush a liar and accuses him of "bribing" foreign government leaders (without a shred of evidence), when Congressional Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi proclaims that Bush doesn’t have a plan for post-war Iraq, has failed to work with international "partners" like Jacques Chirac of France and blames California Governor Gray Davis’ recent defeat on Bush economic policies (despite nearly a decade of  Democratic profligacy in California that drove that state’s budget into the ground) it’s time for a reality check. Something’s going on here, and it’s not just about the facts.

The latest set-to is over whether President Bush was telling us the war in Iraq was finished when he stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Lincoln under a banner saying "Mission Accomplished" and thanked the troops. Never mind that the Lincoln was, indeed, done with its mission and heading home. Never mind that the president, in declaring an end to "major combat operations" in his speech, never claimed the hostilities were over and that he even insisted that the situation was still dangerous and represented only a single battle in the larger war on terror that was (and is) still far from ended. As far as the president’s strident critics are concerned, what he actually said isn’t really important... it’s what they want to convince us he said! This is no different from when they accuse him of having taken us to war because of an "imminent threat" from Saddam Hussein when, in fact, he said, quite clearly, that the threat was NOT imminent and that the whole point of our acting when we did was to prevent it from becoming imminent, at which point, as he noted, it would be too late!

The president’s critics have an ax to grind and this could not be clearer. If Bush says X, they will say Y. But if Bush says Y, they say X. Think of the current posturing about the decision to go to war in the first place. Senator Kerry inveighs against Bush’s leadership while saying he didn’t really vote to authorize the president to go to war in Iraq, when he voted for the resolution that did just that. Instead he claims he only voted to authorize the "threat of force". But that’s NOT what the resolution he voted for said! It specifically gave the president the authority to act. Presumably the senator READ the resolution before signing on to it! More, what kind of a threat would such a resolution be, if it were just a bluff... which is all Kerry now wants to say he was supporting? So Kerry now votes against funding the troop costs and Iraqi reconstruction, which grew directly out of the resolution that Kerry initially voted for but says he didn’t.

And then there’s new Democratic hopeful and former general Wesley Clark. He supported the Bush administration’s actions last year but not this year, now that he’s decided his best shot at becoming president is to try to nab the Democratic nomination (not unlike Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s becoming a Republican just in time to snag that party’s nomination for mayor). Hey, in a crowded field you go where you can find that main chance. But Clark is particularly duopolistic in his efforts. Among his latest sound bites, he takes Bush to task for "prancing" around the U.S.S. Lincoln in a flight suit while suggesting Bush was somehow responsible for not preventing the Qaeda attacks of 9/11!

Any port in a storm, I suppose, especially for a general desperate to make a splash in a crowded field. But it’s getting pretty ugly out there. So is there a cost to all this? Well, besides the increasingly low tone of debate dominating the political chorus this year, and the Democrats’ obvious departure from the truth in favor of hyperbole and innuendo, and what all of this does to the quality of discourse, I would suggest that there is another, even more serious cost which we really do need to be concerned about.

On October 20, our friends at al Qaeda issued one of their now famous pronouncements, through that fair and balanced media outlet known as al Jazeera, in which bin Laden accuses "Bush and his gang" of acts that "have encouraged hypocrisy, and spread vice and political bribes shamelessly at the level of heads of state." More, says critic bin Laden, "this gang and their leader enjoy lying, war and looting to serve their own ambitions. The blood of the children of Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq is still dripping from their teeth. They have fooled you and deceived you into invading Iraq a second time. And they have lied to you and the whole world... Bush has sent your sons into the lion’s den... claiming that this act was in defense of international peace and America’s security, thus they are concealing the facts." Sound like anyone we’ve heard before?

Setting aside the usual hyperbole and overwrought rhetoric that characterizes al Qaeda’s pronouncements, it’s hard not to notice a resonance here with what Bush’s Democratic critics have been relentlessly shouting. Does anyone think these terrorists who brought us 9/11 aren’t listening to the merciless political debate the Democrats have initiated around the president’s foreign policy and that they are not taking heart from it... or hoping to tap into it with their relentless messages of spite and hate that are intended to frighten us into withdrawing from the field? If so, this latest missive from al Qaeda ought to put that notion to rest. They are hearing the same stuff we are and have concluded that their main chance is to join the chorus of Democratic nay sayers in order to convince Americans to throw in the towel. It’s easy to understand why they’re doing this. They can’t beat us on the ground, despite their dastardly and foolish attacks on our cities and skyscrapers. But, if they can reignite Americans’ fears of a Vietnam style imbroglio, they won’t have to. We’ll fold our tents and flee in the night, showing that the al Qaedas of the world can defeat the major Western democracy with terrorism and bombast.

It’s easy to see why al Qaeda says the things they say and what they hope to gain. What’s not so easy is to figure out why the Democrats are doing it... or why they seem to have let partisan ambitions displace a genuine commitment to the security of the nation they say they want to serve.


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