Hate is such a strong word

The Top Story by Chris Graham

The term Bush-hater today doesn’t carry with it the stigma that it used to.

One piece of evidence suggesting that is that more and more people on the left – and even in the amorphous center – are for whatever reason embracing the label.

You would think from listening to apologists for the president that this apparently increasingly mainstream Bush-hating phenomenon is unique to the current era – but in actuality, Oval Office dwellers as far back as the early 19th century have had to face down critics who seemed to dislike them as much for personal reasons as for their policy positions.

“Let’s be fair – politics is a contact sport, and it’s always been rough. And it’s always been personal, to a degree. Thomas Jefferson had to deal with rumors when he was running for president. We all know that history. It’s always been kind of rough. But the degree of dirtiness, and the degree to which it is more personal now, is greater than it’s ever been,” said Quentin Kidd, a political-science professor at Christopher Newport University.

Opponents of the president’s Middle East policies that have the U.S. military engaged in protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have the attention of the administration and its supporters – and the news media – in the here and now. But while there is without a doubt a hard-core group of Bush-haters among those who are critical of the war efforts, it would be inaccurate to use a wide brush to paint all war critics as Bush-haters – the same as it would be overstating things to say that the war issue is the only one that motivates both the critics and haters to raise issue with the way the president is running the country.

“The break for me was the Medicare drug benefit in 2003. It’s just grossly expensive, bad policy. After that, I no longer gave them the benefit of the doubt and started seeing the glass as half-empty,” said Bruce Bartlett, a conservative Bush critic whose book Impostor makes the argument that the president is not at all the fiscal conservative that he makes himself out to be.

The reaction to Impostor has included one happening that Bartlett did not foresee – he was fired from his job at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas-based conservative think tank.

“And no other think-tank has shown any interest in hiring me – for a variety of reasons,” Bartlett said. “I think they’re afraid of the White House. They’re afraid of losing access. I think they’re afraid of losing contributions. And some simply disagree with some aspects of my argument.”

That kind of backlash is almost par for the course in contemporary politics – where setting up camp anywhere other than the far right or far left leaves one unprotected in the demilitarized zone of the shaky center.

“Many of my sharpest critics have decided to take a position of ignoring me – because they feel that by attacking me, they would draw attention to my book and give me more publicity and help me sell more books. So I think that they decided that the best thing for them to do is to say nothing. Also, I think that some of my critics simply can’t refute my argument – and so it’s easier for them to ignore it as well, so that they’re not forced to confront the logical contradiction in their own position,” Bartlett said.

“Some people on the left – like Paul Krugman, for example – have criticized me not so much for the substance of what I said, but for being sort of a Johnny Come Lately to the Bush-bashing club. Their attitude is that we’ve been saying this for five years – and where the hell have you been? Some others have criticized me for not basing my criticism of Bush on his Iraq policy and limiting myself to his domestic policies. I think that’s more the fringe element. The people that I talk to, sort of the mainstream of the left, buy my argument because I don’t think that they have any choice,” Bartlett told The Augusta Free Press.

Bartlett, for the record, does not view or present himself as a Bush-hater. Blogger and freelance writer James Leroy Wilson is among those who have embraced the label – which is significant because of his political leanings.

“One reason that I wrote this article is that I’m not a Democrat – so you can’t put that on me. And here still are dozens of reasons to hate Bush,” said Wilson, whose January column “Why I Hate Bush” appeared in the on-line magazine The Partial Observer.

A conservative Libertarian, Wilson said he counted himself among the subset of the population that “wasn’t a fan of President Clinton” in the 1990s.

“Even as recently as 2000, most Libertarians, when pressed, would say that the Republicans were not as bad as the Democrats – and some of them would vote Republican as the lesser of the two evils. That’s changing – so that at least the two are considered to be equally bad, or the Republicans are even worse than Democrats,” Wilson said.

“I think that’s a remarkable shift – because it didn’t happen with the first George Bush, who was not a conservative at all. That kind of turnaround didn’t happen with him, and it certainly didn’t happen with Ronald Reagan,” Wilson said.

Wilson said he used the word hate in his column to refer to his feelings about Bush-administration policies.

“Many people, myself included, have used the term hate – mainly because of the policies. But after seeing enough of the policies, and hearing him again, and hearing more and more things about what’s really going on in the White House, it has become more personal. For many people, this started out as a criticism of his policy. He seemed like an affable, nice enough guy at first that it wasn’t personal – but for some people it has become personal over time,” Wilson told the AFP.

Charlottesville-based Democratic Party activist and blogger Waldo Jaquith, for one, doesn’t understand why things have become so personal for some people.

“I was raised with the idea that the word hate is extremely strong,” Jaquith said. “So it might be OK to hate Adolf Hitler. It’s OK to hate Satan. These are acceptable figures to whom the word hate can apply. I would proudly wear the badge of hater of many of Bush’s policies. But the man? I don’t like him, but hate him?”

It is bad enough that the White House has turned to defending itself by describing critics of the Bush administration as Bush-haters, Jaquith said, “but it’s worse still that there are actual critics of the administration who would allow themselves to be so pigeonholed to actually call themselves Bush-haters. No rational discussion can actually be held once you’re attacking the president himself. You’ve gone off the deep end at that point.”

“Part of my surprise comes from having come of age while Bill Clinton was president – and I found it as unfathomable then as I do now that some Republicans hate now and hated then President Clinton as much as they did. I found the politics of personal attack really distasteful – and I resolved then that I would not treat the president like that. I was so incensed to see President Clinton treated with so little respect that I find it just as distasteful to see President Bush treated like that,” Jaquith said.
“As a liberal Democrat, I hope that my fellow Democrats would hold themselves to a higher standard than the sort of Republicans who attacked Clinton as they did,” Jaquith said.

“That might be idealistic. It might be naive. But I certainly hope it is the case that these self-described Bush-haters actually hate his policies. They might find him distasteful or a simpleton – pick your insulting term. But he’s a tough guy to hate. He seems like a nice guy, when you get right down to it,” Jaquith told the AFP.

Augusta County Republican activist and blogger Steve Kijak tries to relate a similar message to friends and coworkers of all political persuasions.

“I have a few friends who are Democrats who I know I can talk back and forth on issues with. Unfortunately, there aren’t many people on the other side who are willing to do that,” Kijak said.

Recounting an exchange with an antiwar protestor in Staunton earlier this month that turned personal in short order, Kijak said he knew he “wasn’t going to change her, and she wasn’t going to change me.”

“But it got so personal that we couldn’t even have that conversation – she wouldn’t even respond to me,” Kijak said.

“You’ve got a core group. They hate him. They’re very frustrated that they weren’t able to get their man elected. They feel that the 2000 election was stolen. And then they proceed to tell you everything else the man has done wrong,” Kijak said.

“The agenda that they push has changed several times. It has gone from Bush started the war for oil. Once the blood-for-oil argument failed to get traction, they moved on to he’s fighting daddy’s war now. It’s amazing how many talking points we’ve gone through – and there’s going to be more to come, I’m sure,” Kijak said.

One effect of the Bush-hating phenomenon, according to Brian Darling, the director of U.S. Senate relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, is that it seems to be driving news-media coverage of the Bush administration.

“There’s been a lot of focus, for example, on what happened in Vice President Cheney’s personal life related to his recent hunting trip,” Darling said.

“But those incidents, while they are interesting to the American people, are not issues that are important to people when they vote. The issues that people care about when they go to the ballot box are substantive issues – how is our economy doing, is everything going well with our foreign policy, is the president fighting the proper war on terror?” Darling said.

“You do have a lot of personal attacks against the president, but they don’t detract from the real issues that matter to the American people,” Darling told the AFP.

George Mason University political-science professor Mark Rozell counters that “anti-Bush sentiments are much more influential today – because much of the general public has moved increasingly in that direction, opposing the president and his policies.”

“The Bush-hating phenomenon was not so important until the president’s popularity more generally started to decline – at which point the voices of Bush’s strongest opponents take on much more importance, because much of public opinion is beginning to dovetail with the views of those who haven’t liked Bush from the beginning,” Rozell said.

“If the war continues to go badly in Iraq, and people become more anxious about the economy, and they perceive that there have been a number of significant setbacks in the Bush administration recently, public opinion is going to continue to move much more in the direction of those who have been opposed to the president from the beginning,” Rozell told the AFP.

That the haters could wield this kind of influence on public opinion is not at all a surprise to Kidd.

“I don’t think that the Bush-haters of today are any different that what the Clinton-haters were in the ’90s or the Reagan-haters in the early ’80s,” Kidd told the AFP.

“It was dirty with Reagan and Iran-Contra and Oliver North. George Bush the elder was a transition president. He didn’t create a lot of waves. There wasn’t a lot of personal hatred toward him – but if you think back, the personal animosity on the left was directed at Dan Quayle,” Kidd said.

“When Clinton was elected, a lot of people on the right said it was a fluke, that it wouldn’t have happened if Perot hadn’t been there. So the right was offended at Clinton’s election, because they didn’t think it was fair – meaning the ideological right had a reason to be upset, and they expressed what they were upset about,” Kidd said.

“They pounded away at Clinton on moral issues. They pounded away at Clinton on health care. Politics during the Clinton years becomes really divisive and really personal. Clinton can’t do anything without somebody hitting him personally for it,” Kidd said.

“That carries right over into George W. Bush. But this time, the left is energized – because they feel like the 2000 election was unfair. So they’re energized. Sept. 11 sort of muted the politics of personal destruction for maybe a year – but with the walkup to Iraq, and then the beginning of the war, and as it drags on, the left finds its voice again, and the voice is directed at the personal,” Kidd said.

“Rather than saying I disagree with the policy on Iraq, or I disagree with the policy on health care, it becomes a personal thing. And increasingly, that’s what passes for political discourse these days,” Kidd said.


(Published 03-27-06)

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