The Magazine

The Democrats' Abuse Excuse

From the December 2, 2002 issue: Tom Daschle's revealing attack on Rush Limbaugh.

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AFTER AN ELECTORAL LOSS, sour grapes is a normal response. Few politicians are big enough to manage a nobler one. A political candidacy puts forward a set of ideas about how a decent society ought to be run; a political defeat hands power to people who don't share the losing candidate's goals, and may not even understand them. That is why politicians so often react to defeat with outright incomprehension. Al Gore's rampage through the legal system in hopes of overturning the election of 2000--as if his defeat were some kind of bureaucratic misunderstanding--was only a particularly dramatic product of the kind of incomprehension that is common among unlucky politicians of all parties. Witness Republican bellyaching in recent years about how Democrats win by "scaring voters" about Medicare--as if the question of whether voters ought to be scared were immaterial.

It would be comforting to view the strange press conference held last Wednesday by outgoing Senate majority leader Tom Daschle--in which he blamed Rush Limbaugh and other talk-show hosts for inciting hatred--as an instance of garden-variety sore-loserdom. But the charges Daschle flung indicate something more serious: an anti-democratic arrogance that looks increasingly like a bedrock principle of the Democratic party.

Daschle claimed that Limbaugh had, willy-nilly, incited "threats" against him. His proof was that Limbaugh had criticized what he took to be Daschle's partisan obstruction of popular legislation. "When I was accused of being an obstructionist," Daschle said, "there was a corresponding, a very significant, increase in the number of issues that my family and I had to deal with." Using in this instance the weasel-word "issues," rather than specifying any threats, enabled Daschle to level grave charges at Limbaugh on unknown evidence and then to assimilate Limbaugh's conduct to that of America's terrorist enemies.

"You know," Daschle mused, "we see it in foreign countries and we think, 'Well, my God, how can this religious fundamentalism become so violent?' Well, it's that same shrill rhetoric, it's that same shrill power that motivates. . . . And that's happening in this country. And I worry about where over the course of the next decade this is all going to go. . . . Let's just pray--and I mean pray--that it doesn't get to that point."

Daschle's disingenuousness and hypocrisy are startling. First, Limbaugh ranks rather low on the calumny scale compared with certain of Daschle's fellow Democrats. We cannot think of a Republican equivalent of Alec Baldwin's urging, at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, that impeachment manager Henry Hyde be stoned to death. Nor can we recall any Republican commercial with nearly the potential to incite hatred as the Democratic ads run in the 2000 campaign cycle warning that black churches would burn if Republicans were elected. And of course Daschle wasn't warning his fellow Democrats against indulging in hate speech. He led into his tirade about conservative talk radio by expressing his hopes that Democrats could learn to imitate it. ("We were just talking with some experts a couple of days ago about how, if we're going to try to break through as Democrats, we have to have the same edge that Republicans do.")

For Daschle, sauce for the goose doesn't belong anywhere near the gander. While casting Limbaugh's accusation of obstruction as a potentially violence-abetting sin, his own speech had as its leitmotif accusations of Republican obstruction. "This is a list of all of the things that Republicans stopped us from doing," Daschle began. "Prescription drug coverage, the education funding, appropriations for homeland defense, funding for election reform, the minimum wage, pension protection, farm disaster assistance, bankruptcy reform, the energy bill. So obviously there was a lot of work left on the table, in large measure because the far right chose not to allow it to be enacted."

The most troubling aspect of Daschle's performance--and a plausible explanation for his party's recent electoral failures--was his refusal to acknowledge that Limbaugh's listeners' opinions had any possible validity. What they were was "entertainment," and what made them so entertaining was that they were uttered by maleficent morons: "If entertainment becomes so much a part of politics," Daschle said, "and if that entertainment drives an emotional movement in this country among some people who don't know the difference between entertainment and politics, and who are then so energized to go out and hurt somebody, that troubles me about where politics in America is going."

Certain liberal commentators swallowed this criticism whole. Said Fox News's Alan Colmes of his own talk-show work: "I give listeners enough credit to know that it's entertainment." Kind of like pro wrestling.