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Friday, February 11, 2005

How the Right Wing Works

JONATHAN CHAIT


The Baddest Man in D.C.


Harry who? GOP will tell you.
JONATHAN CHAIT

February 11, 2005

At this very moment, there are millions of conservatives across the land who, unbeknown to them, will soon develop an intense personal loathing for Nevada Sen. Harry Reid. The process, inevitable as the changing of the seasons, began on Monday night when the Republican National Committee distributed a 15-page memo accusing Reid, the chief Senate Democrat, of various transgressions.

It's working. Conservative talking heads have already begun expounding upon Reid's treacherous ways. Though many rank-and-file Republicans may have no strong feelings about Reid today, and some have never even heard of him, it won't be long before the very mention of the words "Harry Reid" will send GOP partisans into paroxysms of rage.

The need for the campaign against Reid is clear enough. Unlike the icy Hillary Rodham Clinton or the hotheaded Howard Dean, Harry Reid does not easily lend himself to hostile caricature. He is anti-abortion and anti-gun control. As the New York Times reported, Reid "is appearing more often on national television, where strategists in both parties say he comes off as reasonable and evenhanded."

Republicans carried out a nearly identical operation to drive up antagonism against Tom Daschle, the previous Democratic Senate leader, who was also inconveniently mild-mannered. Republicans sent out talking points, and in short order conservatives everywhere found themselves deeply vexed by the previously inoffensive, low-profile South Dakota senator. Rush Limbaugh, taking the demonization campaign a tad too literally, began calling Daschle "El Diablo." Perhaps now, with the devil himself already having been used, Limbaugh is thumbing through "Paradise Lost" looking for lesser satanic figures after which to name Reid. (My money's on "Beelzebub.")

It's entirely natural that Republicans would have no love for a leading Democrat. And there's nothing wrong with hating a particularly loathsome member of the other party, or even of your own party. I've done plenty of both myself. The trouble is that this particular campaign is highly dishonest.

A headline on the RNC document, for instance, calls Reid the "Chief Democrat Obstructionist." Now, "obstructionist" has a very specific meaning. An obstructionist doesn't merely try to stop legislation he disagrees with. If that were the case, every minority leader in a legislative body would be guilty of obstructionism. Obstructionists try to stop any legislation from passing, good or bad, merely to prevent the majority party from claiming credit. During the first two years of the Clinton administration, Republican Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole kept setting his preconditions higher and higher until eventually he renounced his own healthcare bill. Now that's obstructionism.

What act of actual obstructionism has Reid committed? The charges center on his current opposition to privatizing Social Security. To suggest he has flip-flopped, the RNC quotes Reid as saying in 1999 "most of us have no problem with taking a small amount of the Social Security proceeds and putting it into the private sector." Fox News apparatchiks Brit Hume and Sean Hannity have trumpeted this as evidence that Reid has reversed himself out of expediency.

But the plan Reid praised, which Clinton floated five years ago, was not privatization. It called for the government to invest a portion of the Social Security trust fund in stocks. Unlike President Bush's plan, it wouldn't have exposed individuals to any greater risk. Nearly all privatization advocates opposed the Clinton plan, and nearly all advocates of the Clinton plan oppose privatization.

The RNC also notes that in 1999 Reid took a trip to Chile to examine its privatized pension system. In fact, the high-minded explanation for Reid's trip is that he wanted to learn about privatization, but he wasn't persuaded that it would work in the United States. The low-minded explanation is that he wanted a free junket to Chile. Either way, there's no evidence he's changed his stance, let alone that he's done so for partisan reasons.

The real reason Republicans object to Reid is that he's a Democrat who disagrees with key points of Bush's agenda. Of course, you can't very well whip the Fox News audience into a lather by pointing at Reid and shouting: "He's a Democrat, and he's voting against us! The nerve!" Hence the need for insults like "obstructionist" and "partisan" — another favorite term of abuse against both Reid and Daschle — which are merely ways of making membership in the other party sound like some kind of affront.

This kind of transparent propaganda is, sadly, a normal function of political parties. But if you get gulled into believing it, or repeating it, you're either a dupe or a partisan hack.
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