According to the U.S. Constitution, there's a
presidential election next year. Assuming it takes
place as scheduled, however, Republicans are demanding special ground rules: there will be no
criticizing the august personage of "America's commander-in-chief." Any rival who points out
that George W. Bush is arguably the worst president since the Civil War will be deemed unpatriotic.
The bullying has already begun. Speaking in New
Hampshire last week, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)
permitted himself a wry joke. "What we need now is not just a regime change in Saddam Hussein
and Iraq," he said "but we need a regime change in the United States."
Kerry's been using the remark for months. Given
Bush's incantatory repetition of the phrase, it's a
guaranteed laugh getter. A decorated Vietnam combat veteran, Kerry may have thought he'd earned
the right, although no American should have to. Criticizing our leaders isn't merely a constitutional
right, it's our duty as citizens.
Nevertheless, Republicans feigned outrage in their
usual scripted, coordinated way. The RNC
e-mailed party faithful quoting chairman Marc Racicot. "Senator Kerry crossed a grave line when
he dared to suggest the replacement of America's commander-in-chief at a time when America is
at war," he said. "These comments are just the latest example of Democrat leaders blaming America first."
Imagine that, Kerry "dared to suggest" replacing
President Junior. Talk radio bloviators jumped in,
along with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Rep. Tom DeLay and the usual pundits. DeLay pronounced
Kerry's remarks "desperate and inappropriate." New York Post editor John Podhoretz called them
"ugly" and "disgusting." Transplanted Brit Andrew Sullivan opined that "Kerry is now indistinguishable
from the most hard core anti-war leftists."
Accusing Democrats of lacking patriotism is GOP
boilerplate. Even before Kerry's "regime change" joke,
Weekly Standard editor and neo-conservative guru William Kristol was sadly telling Fox News Sunday
that "a certain chunk of the Democratic Party, a higher chunk of the liberal commentators, take a
certain relish in the fact when something goes badly in the war. They...hate the Bush administration
more than they love America. And that is a very bad situation."
David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who takes
credit for coining the "Axis of Evil" phrase,
used virtually identical terms to describe another group of Bush critics. "[T]hey are thinking about
defeat, and wishing for it and they will take pleasure in it if it should happen," he wrote. "They began
by hating the neoconservatives. They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished
by hating their country."
Frum, however, wasn't talking about Democrats,
but conservative pundits Robert Novak and Pat
Buchanan, who have criticized the war in Iraq as contrary to the national interest. Novak broke
what he said was a 40 year refusal to respond to personal attacks by describing his own Korean war
service and lifelong patriotism.
During the 2002 election, Republicans ran TV ads
in South Dakota linking Sen. Tom Daschle,
an Air Force veteran, with Saddam Hussein. They impugned the patriotism of Sen. Max Cleland of
Georgia, who lost two legs and an arm fighting in Vietnam, because he differed with Junior over
details of a Homeland Security bill Bush himself had opposed until his administration's cover-up of
pre-9/11 intelligence failures became a big issue. Astonishingly, it worked, largely because Cleland
refused to dignify the smear with a personal response.
Sen. Kerry is a different breed of cat. Instead
of cowering, he hit back. "I'm not going to let the likes
of Tom DeLay question my patriotism, which I fought for and bled for in order to have the right to
speak out," he said. It was an obvious reference to the fact that DeLay, like many in the GOP
Chickenhawk Drum and Bugle Corps, avoided Vietnam. Indeed, DeLay once memorably complained
that undeserving minorities had unfairly grabbed up all the infantry slots.
Kerry later amplified the theme. "The Republicans
have tried to make a practice of attacking anybody
who speaks out strongly by questioning their patriotism," he said. "I refuse to have my patriotism or
right to speak out questioned. I fought for and earned the right to express my views in this country...
If they want to pick a fight, they've picked a fight with the wrong guy."
"I watched what they did to Max Cleland last year,"
Kerry added. "Shame on them for doing it then
and shame on them for trying to do it now."
"Finally," wrote Joan Walsh in Salon, "a Democrat
with the guts to fight back!" Amen to that.
Bush and company have gotten away with the phony tough-guy act for far too long. Frightened and
confused since 9/11, Americans don't necessarily want to go to war with every tinpot dictator in
the Islamic world. But neither do they trust a leader who won't stand up for himself to stand up for them.
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