Column: Demonizing Daschle

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois and a columnist for HNN.

James Michael Curley--Boston’s “lovable-scoundrel” who served four terms as mayor, four terms as U.S. representative and one as the Commonwealth’s governor--once infuriated his opponents during the 1945 mayoral campaign by reading poetry on the air rather than responding to their increasingly shrill attacks. The gambit endeared him to the public and contributed to Curley’s greatest electoral victory. This was an especially noteworthy feat when one considers that Curley was under indictment at the time and about to sojourn for six-months at a federal penitentiary, his second such prison term.

11Tom Daschle is now reading poetry to Bush and his operatives, and it’s driving them as nuts as it did Curley’s nemeses.

In tandem with a bughouse band of congressional confederates, our U.S. Vice President of Anonymity, and various right-wing outfits such as the Family Research Council--formerly headed by that man’s man, Gary Bauer--Bush is throwing everything he can at the lone South Dakotan senator. Daschle has become, as the New York Times put it, the Republicans’ devil du jour.

One GOP Senate colleague has labeled mild-mannered Daschle a “rabid dog.” Speaker of the House Denny Hastert, still of wrestling fame, has charged him with persuading the Senate to “turn its back” on the nation. Veep Cheney, presumably from the depths of a NORAD bunker, released by carrier pigeon his ever-so-admonitory criticism of Daschle as “an obstructionist.” And the Family Research Council, always there for us when we need a laugh, has characterized Tom as Saddam Hussein’s co-conspirator because--why else?--he supports maintaining the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s flora and fauna.

To all this Daschle has responded that he’s “amused.” Sheer poetry.

If Daschle is playing Jim Curley, Bush and his fellow Republicans are playing Curley’s contemporary, Joe McCarthy. The latter is remembered principally, of course, for two things: demagoguing and demonizing the bejesus out of everything that touched his cold hands, and fuzzy math. McCarthy didn’t know a communist from a compass plant in early 1950, but knowing he faced a tough Senate reelection bid, Tail-Gunner Joe hopped on the anticommunist bandwagon by February and took it where no man had gone before. Other than disrupting or destroying thousands of lives, the years-long harm to which McCarthy so masterfully contributed was in distracting the nation from any real social reforms so badly in need.

McCarthy had begun his crusade, you’ll recall, with fundamental problems in arithmetic. At his historic Wheeling, West Virginia speech on February 9, 1950 he first charged the State Department with harboring 205 communists. That was the figure cited in affidavits by reporters attending the event. By the next day in Denver the number grew to 207 and later in a Salt Lake City radio interview it dwindled to 57. Over the course of the next few days the number buoyed up and down from 205 to 57 to 81 to somewhere in the neighborhood of “over 200.” As McCarthy-biographer Thomas Reeves wrote, “He switched from 205 to 57 without batting an eye, but he then continued at times to mention 205 and kindred figures, giving headaches to reporters who were trying to keep things straight.”

In late 1999 Bush needed something to counter Steve Forbes’s loony flat-tax proposal, and in politics there’s nothing better with which to trump a loony proposal than an even loonier one. Thus we were all treated to W.’s massive, surplus-raiding, deficit-inducing tax plan for the welfared wealthy. Like McCarthy’s entry into the cause of anticommunism, Bush didn’t have the vaguest notion about the intricacies of fiscal policy nor, after nearly a year on the job, could he begin to explain them to you now. Yet here we are, stuck with his turkey of a tax giveaway that harms those least able to withstand harm and in general retards social equity.

As for numbers, McCarthy seems a veritable Stephen Hawking compared to Bush and his economic team. They were all over the road for a year before the election when it came to who would get what, when, and in what shape the bloody revenue-slashing would leave the federal budget. They have similarly swerved about since.

Four months ago Princeton economist Paul Krugman wrote a concise retrospective. He pointed out that the New Republic’s May issue had featured Bush on the cover with the headline, “He’s Lying.” Early on the figures were relatively simple. “Inside were two articles about the tax cut. One ... showed that--contrary to administration claims--the tax cut would mainly go to the richest few percent of the population.” That of course became hair-raisingly clear, and real, upon its passage in Congress. “The other was an excerpt from my own book Fuzzy Math, refuting the administration’s claims that it could cut taxes, increase military spending, provide prescription drug coverage and still avoid dipping into the Social Security surplus.” Now just what kind of coverage was that? And what was this talk of a surplus?

Krugman summarized his case bluntly. “It was obvious from the start that the numbers didn’t add up. And in case you were wondering, the administration is still lying.” That was August, and any knowingly quixotic claims of a surplus have long since vanished from the administration’s talking points.

Just as McCarthy pulled numbers out of thin air to suit the exigencies of the moment, the Bush administration has done the same. McCarthy got away with it for nearly four years. Only after the damage had been done did the American public toss him back from whence he came. The official vehicle of McCarthy’s undoing, however, aside from himself, was the Senate. It was the Senate that finally had had enough of his dissembling and sent him packing.

Daschle has now pitted the same institution against the Bush administration’s orchestrated demonization and bullying. Republican strategist Frank Luntz can write all the memos he wants about how “it’s time for someone, everyone, to start using the phrase ‘Daschle Democrats’ and the word ‘obstructionist’ in the same sentence.” Daschle will just keep smiling and reading poetry, perhaps because he knows those tactics won’t hunt for long.

© Copyright 2001 P M Carpenter

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George Bayliss - 12/26/2001

Having lived through the bad days of Joe McCarthy, I can all too vividly recall the hopelessness we felt as that madness careened along. Nothing seemed to oppose it and thinking people were astoundingly ineffective in the face of its headlong momentum. Mr. Carpenter has done us a fine service again in demonstrating the vile callowness and stupidity of the Bush administration and the Santorumesque morons (my own senator, God help us). The press seems to have utterly caved in and we look to gutsy folks with brains like Carpenter to show the amusing side of this hideous twist of government power in thrall to corporations and the wealthy. It is apt to compare todays situation with the early 50's because so much of the same sort of troubles prevail. Let us pray that they hit the wall and end it soon. Thanks, PJ.