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"Cornbelt Cromwell" and "Senator Depends":
The Return of the Politics of Personal Demonization

by Brendan Nyhan (brendan@spinsanity.org)
December 3, 2001

During the last week, partisan politics returned with a vengeance as battles intensified over military tribunals for alleged terrorists, detention of non-citizens and other measures enacted by the Bush administration in the wake of the September 11 attacks. While much of the debate has been relatively substantive (albeit heated and emotional), some critics of Attorney General John Ashcroft and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy have lapsed into hyperbole, jargon and vicious rhetoric, signaling a return to the politics of personal demonization.

Ashcroft in the crosshairs

Several critics of the administration have taken egregious personal shots at Ashcroft. For example, David Rossie at the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin makes this purely speculative, pseudo-psychological claim about the Attorney General's views and motivations:

Ashcroft is an intensely religious man and no doubt sees issues such as this in a spiritual rather than a temporal light. So in arbitrarily trying to abolish a state law, he is not, in his opinion, overreaching, not imposing his will on a sovereign state; rather he is simply doing God's work.

He also calls Ashcroft a "Cornbelt Cromwell" and says Bush nominated him to appease "the religious right - the American Taliban if you will". As Bryan recently showed, this sort of name-calling is increasingly common, especially amongst liberals. Here it is used to cast aspersions on Ashcroft, who he implicitly calls a member of the so-called "American Taliban".

Gene Lyons of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette also attacks Ashcroft personally, calling him "a religious crackpot" before engaging in yet more unfounded speculation about the Attorney General's thinking. In a classic example of fallacious slippery-slope reasoning, Lyons claims - with no evidence - that if the measures undertaken by Ashcroft and Bush aren't rolled back, the government will inevitably take away more civil liberties:

It doesn't take a psychic to know where [Ashcroft] and [Drug Enforcement Agency director] Asa Hutchinson, his running buddy at DEA, would like to take this thing... Didn't the Taliban traffic in heroin? They did. Don't the NARCOTRAFFICANTES of Latin America finance terrorism? They do. So why not merge the "war on terrorism" with the "war on drugs" into a righteous crusade against America's deadliest enemies? Think Bush would object? Ponder the consequences. If the Congress and the courts, backed by strong public opinion, don't stop them now, you can kiss your constitutional freedoms goodbye.

More broadly, a number of prominent critics of the measures have employed hyperbolic rhetoric in support of their arguments. William Safire, for example, slammed Bush as assuming "dictatorial powers" (free registration required). Frank Rich of the New York Times compared Bush's United States to Cuba and Chile on November 24 (no longer freely available online), while Rossie chose Argentina and the Soviet Union.

The jargon counter-offensive against Ashcroft detractors

This criticism has provoked defenders of the administration to attack critics as hysterical. Certainly, as shown above, some of the critics' rhetoric has been overstated or worse, but Bush supporters have used its excesses to marginalize legitimate concerns. Here are two examples:

The Wall Street Journal on what it calls "The Ashcroft 'Fatwa'" (free registration required): "[W]hen you cut through the hysteria, it turns out that what Mr. Ashcroft is proposing is far from threatening. Compared with previous American wars, his actions are quite modest. In the interests of getting our libertarian friends off their Valium prescriptions, we thought we'd go through them one by one."
John Podhoretz in the New York Post: "Some Democrats, liberals and civil libertarians are going to pieces. You can sense a kind of deranged relief in their factually challenged, emotionally overwrought and politically suicidal assault on the administration's prosecution of the war on terrorism."

These responses employ two tactics of the current jargon. First, the Journal and Podhoretz sarcastically allege or imply mental illness in their political opponents, like many pundits (the Journal even sarcastically prescribes Valium). Both also exaggerate criticism so they can pummel straw men.

The second tactic echoes a strategy used to defend Ashcroft during his confirmation hearings. Then, Ashcroft supporters stretched criticism of his history on racial issues into supposed charges of racism, then counter-attacked by saying critics were smearing a good man. Now, several have transmuted criticism of Ashcroft and the administration, most of which is focused on policy, into a simple reprise of Democratic opposition to Ashcroft's confirmation. While political considerations are no doubt an important factor, the substance of the charges made by Leahy and others is being aggressively downplayed in order to promote the claim that the controversy is simple power politics.

Limbaugh ridicules Leahy

A key part of the counter-attack has been a series of prolonged diatribes against Leahy by Rush Limbaugh. The radio talk show host has followed his normal practice of building an attack on a political opponent around a derogatory nickname - in this case, "Senator Depends", a reference to Depend "protective underwear" for incontinent adults and a pun on Leahy's alleged history of leaks of classified and confidential information. There are three such charges, which were noted on the conservative website Newsmax.com (first in January and again last week) and also in the National Review on July 9. In 1988, Leahy acknowledged inadvertently leaking a confidential Senate Intelligence Committee report, apologized and resigned from the committee (contrary to Limbaugh's false claim [Windows Media Player] that "he never apologized"), but he denied the other two reports from the 1980s, which allege that he inadvertently disclosed classified intelligence information in one case and threatened to do so in another.

Wielding the nickname "Senator Depends" like a club, Limbaugh belittled Leahy last week for seeking political gain by attacking Bush. He suggested at least three times this week that Leahy and the Democrats "appear to be more concerned with the civil rights of terrorists than they were the voting rights of American military last year in Florida" (Windows Media Player clips one and two / text article at RushLimbaugh.com), a classic example of the jargon tactic of attempting to delegitimize a political opponent's position by illogically juxtaposing it with their position on an unrelated issue.

The next day, Limbaugh went one step further, holding Leahy responsible for how Limbaugh twisted Leahy's words. Claiming that he had been making Florida voting rights claim "facetiously", Limbaugh said he did not believe Leahy cared more about the rights of terrorists than the voting rights of the military, but "[Leahy's] actions make it look that way - that's the point." Limbaugh then faulted Leahy for actions that Limbaugh interpreted unfairly. "The fact that [Leahy's] willing to allow himself to be interpreted that way shows the raw hunger and thirst for power these people have," Limbaugh said. "That's what amazing about it - that he thinks he can withstand that perception of himself" (also see the text article based on these comments at RushLimbaugh.com). This mind-bending pseudo-logic is the apotheosis of modern jargon - Limbaugh creates a tortured, emotionally powerful construction to generate subrational responses from his listeners, then uses the possibility that he or someone else would create such rhetoric as evidence that Leahy has a "raw hunger and thirst for power".

Will the post 9-11 discourse be even worse?

Since September 11, most vitriol from pundits and politicians has been directed at political opponents of the war in Afghanistan, with other debate remaining somewhat more restrained. With the expansion of the homeland security debate, however, we've seen a rapid return to full-fledged personal demonization on issues not directly related to support for the war itself. This is not an encouraging start to a return to normalcy in American politics.

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Related links:
-Taliban labels flying thick and fast (Bryan Keefer, 11/16)
-Limbaugh deception on recount and Hillary Clinton (Brendan Nyhan, 11/14)
-The discourse of mental illness (Brendan Nyhan, 10/16)
-The illegitimacy attack / Daschle-bashing (Brendan Nyhan, 5/25)
-Race and "Racial McCarthyism" (Brendan Nyhan, 4/23)

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