Politics & Policy

Democrats Attack

Expanding the Dionne lexicon.

In his appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday E.J. Dionne, Jr. said this:

Hillary Clinton is running as the tough fighter, and if Obama doesn’t show Democrats that he can be a tough fighter against the Republican attack machine, so-called, but in fact it is, then, you know, Democrats are going to pull back from him.

This has been a theme of Dionne’s for years now. I’d urge readers to do a simple Google search with the words “E. J. Dionne” and “Republican attack machine” or “right-wing attack machine” and see the treasure trove you’ll stumble across. Dionne believes the “Republican attack machine” is brutal, efficient, and unique. Republicans play dirty, according to this narrative; Democrats do not. “Democratic attack machine,” as best as I can tell, does not exist in the Dionne lexicon. It should.

The term “Democratic attack machine” would have applied, for example, when Senator Edward Kennedy charged that the war in Iraq was a “political plot” hatched in Texas and when Kennedy went to the Senate floor and said about President Bush, “week after week after week after week we were told lie after lie after lie after lie.” It would have applied to the attacks Senator Kennedy leveled at Robert Bork during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

“Democratic attack machine” would have also applied when Howard Dean hinted that President Bush knew in advance about the attacks on September 11. It would have applied when Al Gore charged that Bush has brought “deep dishonor to our country and built a durable reputation as the most dishonest president since Richard Nixon” — and when Gore called Bush a “moral coward” and said his administration was allied with “digital brownshirts.” It would have applied when Tom Harkin called Vice President Cheney a “coward” and Max Cleland accused the president and others of “flat-out lying.” And it would have applied when the NAACP aired a commercial accusing Bush of killing “all over again” James Byrd, an African American who had been murdered by racists.

It would have applied when MoveOn.org ran ads accusing General David Petraeus of “betraying” his nation. And it would have applied many times to the Reverend Jesse Jackson — for example, when Jackson claimed the Christian Coalition was a strong force in the slaveholding south, when he equated American conservatism with South African apartheid and Nazism, when he likened conservative Supreme Court justices to arsonists of the Ku Klux Klan, and when he accused Ward Connerly of being a “house slave” and a “puppet of the white man.”

The term “Democratic attack machine” would have fit perfectly when the Clinton team attempted to destroy, on almost a daily basis, the reputation of Kenneth Starr and his team of prosecutors. It would also have applied when they attempted to destroy the reputations of Dolly Kyle Browning, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, and Monica Lewinsky.

Come to think of it, Dionne has been critical of the Clinton tactics — but only in the last few months, when they have been used against his favored Democratic candidate for president, the very liberal Barack Obama. After years of accusing Clinton critics of being “Clinton haters,” it looks like Dionne is now able to muster some antipathy for his once-favorite political couple. In January Dionne wrote, “The Clintons’ assault on Obama is so depressing.” But where was E. J.’s anger and depression when in the 1990s the Clinton’s Democratic attack machine assaulted, in a far more ruthless fashion, their GOP critics and various women whom they viewed as a threat to their political power? Some moderately liberal voices, like Stuart Taylor of National Journal, demonstrated admirable independence at the time. But Taylor and the late Michael Kelly were almost alone in their examples of consistency and fair-mindedness.

The truth is that both parties have admirable and dishonorable political strategists; neither political party is the exclusive home of knaves or the virtuous. To pretend that the only political “attack machine” belongs to the GOP is wrong and can’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny. I suspect that E. J. Dionne, a bright and delightful man, would concede as much in his more reflective moments. Perhaps someday soon we’ll see him concede as much in his public comments as well.

Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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