According to Dana Milbank in the Washington Post, Democrats [are] Conflicted on Playing Rough, a headline that should be absolutely mystifying to anyone who has watched American politics over the past 40 years. From LBJ's "Daisy" ad to Ted Kennedy's assault on Robert Bork to the "Bush = Hitler" meme of the 2004 campaign, any conflicts that Democrats have had have been resolved, quickly and quietly, in favor of taking the low road.
None of which has prevented spirited whining from the left every time the Republicans dare to play rough. Milbank's piece offers, without a hint of skepticism, both the Democratic self-congratulatory "we only take the high road" and more whining about the ads that they've had to put up with. The trigger for this piece was the scurrilous and false NARAL ad, an ad that even CNN eventually decided that it could not, in good conscience, keep running.
Amid similar criticism against another controversial ad, most Republicans brushed aside demands to repudiate Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that had taken aim at John F. Kerry's war record. Some Democrats said the difference revealed on their side an ambivalence about modern political combat that helps explain why their party is out of power.
"Republicans don't mind running an ad that's entirely false, but Democrats have never learned, and I'm not sure many of them want to learn, how to play that kind of politics," said Robert Shrum, an adviser to several Democratic presidential campaigns. NARAL had to pull the ad, he said, because "they weren't getting support from any substantial quarter."
In the first place, there was never any compelling or convincing evidence produced that there was anything false or misleading in the Swift Boat Vet ads.
In the second place, the leader of the Swift Boat Vets was a Democrat. It wasn't a Republican group, or a group that was, in general, supportive of Republicans. It was an anti-John Kerry group, period. Had the Democrats nominated any other candidate, the group would never have existed. NARAL would, on the other hand, have opposed any SCOTUS candidate nominated by President Bush.
In the third place, there's no evidence introduced to support the contention that "Republicans don't mind running an ad that's entirely false." No evidence at all. Shrum says it, Milbank uncritically prints it.
And there is more inaccuracy and inappropriate equivalence.
In June, Democrats demanded that Bush aide Karl Rove apologize for saying that liberals wanted "therapy and understanding for our attackers." Rove refused to apologize, and Republicans leapt to his defense. Just before the Rove episode, Republicans demanded an apology from Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the number two Democrat in the Senate, who likened U.S. treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to techniques used by Nazis. Democrats joined in criticizing Durbin, who eventually delivered a tearful apology on the Senate floor.
Rove didn't say ALL LIBERALS wanted "therapy and understanding," and it is not debatable that there were some who did. Durbin's rhetoric, on the other hand, was completely inappropriate. There was no legitimate comparison to be made between Guantanamo and the Gulag or the Nazi concentration camps or the Cambodian killing fields. Durbin's statement was reportedly played repeatedly on Al-jazeera, and damaged US interests.
And while some Democrats did - eventually - "join in criticizing Durbin," it was by no means a majority position, and the timing suggests that it was also not a principled position. Durbin didn't apologize until there was some Democratic criticism, and that didn't come for a week, after the uproar became too loud to continue ignoring.
Now, to be fair to Milbank, he does, down at the end of the article, address a couple of these issues.
Few who remember the treatment of Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas or Newt Gingrich would assert that Democrats have trouble being mean. Nor are Democrats always inclined to eat their own: When Clinton was impeached, Democrats were almost unfailingly loyal, while Republicans have turned on party leaders such as Gingrich, Trent Lott and Bob Livingston.
The problem is, many of the people reading the piece aren't going to get there. The headline, the opening paragraphs, the first quotes, they all create a perception that the Democrats are the "high road" party and the Republicans aren't. They've printed a piece that essentially and uncritically repeats the standard DNC talking points, and the addition of a parenthetical "both parties do some bad stuff" at the end doesn't change that.
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