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The Mean Strategy Backfires
Published on Monday, May 28, 2001 in the New York Times
The Mean Strategy Backfires
by Bob Herbert
 
Back in 1998 I offered the Republican Party some unsolicited advice. "Give up the politics of meanness," I said. "It's killing you.

But the G.O.P. never seems to learn. Newt Gingrich once told a group of young Republicans, "I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty."

It was in the party's interest to behave graciously and prudently when, with Mr. Gingrich leading the way, it won control of both houses of Congress in 1994. But the G.O.P. is a party of sore winners, and that big victory emboldened the extremists and ushered in a sustained period of arrogance and mean-spiritedness that has hurt the party and turned off much of the country.

The Jim Jeffords fiasco is a culmination. Since the Republican takeover of Congress we've had shutdowns of the government that backfired on the G.O.P., the impeachment of a president against the will of the people, and the increasing prominence of such smiley-faced Republicans as Tom "the Hammer" DeLay (who compared the Environmental Protection Agency to the Gestapo) and Trent Lott (who jokingly suggested that maybe lightning would strike Hillary Clinton before she could make it to the Senate).

George W. Bush was supposed to have been a cure for such ills, a new kind of Republican. He was "a uniter," he kept telling us, "not a divider."

But the hard-core conservatives who controlled the party were not interested in a new kind of Republican. An affable front man who could raise tons of campaign dollars was fine. But someone who genuinely believed the party should moderate its views? No.

There was no need to worry. When Mr. Bush picked Dick Cheney as his running mate (and the man who would actually run things in the White House), he slammed the door on moderates in both parties. Mr. Cheney, during his tenure as a congressman from Wyoming, was the ultimate right-winger. He cast votes against the Safe Water Drinking Act, against fair-housing legislation, against federal support for AIDS testing and counseling, even against funding for school lunches for poor children.

It would be hard to portray Dick Cheney as a uniter.

Those who thought that the loss of the popular vote in the presidential election and the 50-50 split in the Senate would force Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney to govern in a more conciliatory, centrist fashion overlooked the core of extremism (and arrogance) that characterizes the G.O.P.

Which brings us to Senator Jeffords. He didn't leave the Republican Party. He was chased away by the close- minded, mean-spirited figures who control the party and are damaging it badly. Mr. Bush trailed the combined candidacies of Al Gore and Ralph Nader by more than three million votes. And now the G.O.P. has lost the Senate. Can the House be far behind?

The Bush White House and others humiliated Senator Jeffords. They wanted his vote, but they didn't want anything else to do with him. It's a measure of the fanaticism that infects the G.O.P. that party leaders could risk the loss of one house of Congress and jeopardize the president's entire agenda to punish a senator who at times strayed from the party line.

"Unless the party comes back to the mainstream and stops punishing dissent, they may lose more members and the support of the American people," said Senator Joseph Lieberman, the moderate Democrat from Connecticut.

And Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has more than once felt the wrath of his fellow Republicans, said, "Tolerance of dissent is the hallmark of a mature party, and it is well past time for the Republican Party to grow up."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times

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