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Playing the patriotism card

The new wave of attacks on Tom Daschle
By Bryan Keefer (bryan@spinsanity.org)
November 20, 2002

Since he became Majority Leader, Senator Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has been the subject of repeated vicious attacks, particularly since Sept. 11. But when Daschle raised questions about the success of the war on terrorism last week, Rep. Mark Foley, R-FL, and radio host Rush Limbaugh took the attacks on him to a new low, explicitly questioning Daschle's motivations and branding him as unpatriotic.

This is the latest chapter in a troubling history of unfair attacks on critics of the conduct of the war on terrorism -- and Daschle in particular. In particular, when he suggested in February that success in the fight against terrorism was in doubt and that it would not be a victory unless bin Laden and other leaders were caught, prominent Republicans retaliated by suggesting, as Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), head of the National Republican Campaign Committee, did, that Daschle's "divisive comments have the effect of giving aid and comfort to our enemies".

Last Thursday, Daschle again suggested that the war on terrorism has not been successful, in part because Osama bin Laden remains at large. During a press conference, Daschle remarked, "We haven't found bin Laden. We haven't made any real progress in many of the other areas involving the key elements of al Qaeda. They continue to be as great a threat today as they were a year and a half ago. So by what measure can we say this has been successful so far?" Daschle elaborated on his remarks in an interview with Greta van Susteren on Fox News Channel later that day:

Well, the president himself, Greta, held that out to be the standard over a year ago, when he said we wouldn't be successful until we found him dead or alive. Obviously, we haven't found him, so by that standard, we're not successful. I do think there are other measurements of success.
But I'm troubled, frankly, that we haven't made greater progress. I'm troubled by the fact they pose just as much -- that is, the al Qaeda network -- poses just as great a threat today to the United States as they did over a year ago. So we have to be concerned. I don't think anybody has a right to say we're winning the war on terrorism until we see more results.

Daschle's criticism represents some of the toughest yet from Democrats, though it is well within the bounds of reasonable political debate.

In response, Rep. Mark Foley lashed out in a press release titled "Foley Questions Daschle's Patriotism." His statement goes much further than Davis and others who have attacked the practical effect of Daschle's previous statements as "aid and comfort to our enemies," etc., instead attacking the Senator's motives. "It looks like his patriotism has gone the way of his majority," Foley said. "I just hope this rhetoric of fear doesn't consume the minority leader. It could prove not only disastrous for his party - once again - but the nation." While conservative politicians and commentators have previously implied that criticism of the war on terror is unpatriotic, Foley is the first Republican politician to level the accusation explicitly.

On Friday, Rush Limbaugh launched into an extended rant culminating in the suggestion that Daschle is attempting to "sabotage the war on terrorism" [Windows Media Audio]:

There's a very high likelihood we're going to even face additional terrorist attacks ... No country is safe from this threat, not even us, no country is going to be perfect in its efforts to fight it. And Senator Daschle, you know this. Just as you know that you are hoping to benefit politically when our economy stagnates and people lose jobs, you are hoping to politically benefit with the next terrorist attack. And that's what this comment of yours was about yesterday, Senator, and that's what make it so despicable. This is almost the Wellstone memorial all over again. You know another attack is going to happen and you're setting it up so that you can say, "See I told you so and this President [did] nothing to stop it." You are seeking political advantage in the war on terrorism just exactly as you sought political advantage after the war on terrorism started on September 11. Just as you sought political advantage with the economy plundering [sic], just as you sought political advantage with the stock market collapse, just as you sought political advantage with the corporate scandals.
You seek political advantage with the nation at war. There is no greater testament to the depths to which the Democratic Party and liberalism have fallen. You now position yourself, Senator Daschle, to exploit future terrorist attacks for political gain. You are worse, sir, than the ambulance-chasing tort lawyers that make up your chief contributors. You, sir, are a disgrace. You are a disgrace to patriotism, you are a disgrace to this country, you are a disgrace to the Senate, and you ought to be a disgrace to the Democratic Party but sadly you're probably a hero among some of them today...
Way to demoralize the troops, Senator! What more do you want to do to destroy this country than what you've already tried? [pounding table] It is unconscionable what this man has done! This stuff gets broadcast around the world, Senator. What do you want your nickname to be? Hanoi Tom? Tokyo Tom? You name it, you can have it apparently. You sit there and pontificate on the fact that we're not winning the war on terrorism when you and your party have done nothing but try to sabotage it, which you are continuing to do. This little speech of yours yesterday, and this appearance of yours on television last night, let's call it what it is. It's nothing more than an attempt to sabotage the war on terrorism for your own personal and your party's political gain. This is cheap. And it's beneath even you. And that's pretty low.

Limbaugh's attack is far more sophisticated than Foley's, combining suggestions about Daschle's motivations with a broad attack on liberals to imply that it is not just Daschle but the entire Democratic Party that is trying to undermine the war on terrorism.

In a time of war, these unfounded accusations are inflammatory in the extreme. For months, attacks on dissent - particularly against Daschle - have gone almost entirely unchallenged. Now Foley and Limbaugh have carried this line of attack to its logical conclusion by explicitly - and demagogically - questioning the patriotism of one of the prominent Democrats in the country.

Update - 11/22 10:33 AM EST: For our take on the controversy over Daschle's criticism of Limbaugh, click here.

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Related links:
-Axing the tough questions (Brendan Nyhan, 5/21/02)
-Bully brigade (Brendan Nyhan, 3/4/02)
-Quieting the homefront (Bryan Keefer, 3/1/02)
-Spinsanity on Rush Limbaugh
-Spinsanity on attacks on Tom Daschle
-Spinsanity on the debate over the war on terrorism

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