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Redbait and switch: An arms race of outrage

Posted: April 27, 2012 10:38 a.m.
Updated: April 30, 2012 5:00 a.m.

As the campaign year heats up, the politics of umbrage already is in full swing. But some offenses are worth getting outraged about more than others.

I refuse, for example, to get all worked up over Ted Nugent. Sure, he's a blight on decent society for his recent rant about President Barack Obama that earned him a sit-down with Secret Service agents. His fiery remarks at the National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis came close to calling for violence against the president. Not cool.

But let's be real. Nugent may be a blight, but he is not a "Mitt Romney surrogate," as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, identified him in a news release that deplored his remarks.

Surrogates are designated spokespeople for candidates. Nugent was, at most, a Romney supporter from whom Romney might back away at light speed.

Schultz, at best, was dealing some payback. Republicans and other conservatives labeled Democratic CNN commentator Hilary Rosen a "surrogate" after her on-air remarks about Romney's wife, Ann, not having "worked a day in her life" sounded condescending to stay-at-home moms.

Rosen's connections to Obama were about as close as Nugent's to Romney. But that was close enough for the Romney supporters, who were desperate to close his yawning gender gap behind Obama among women voters.

That's how the politics of umbrage operate. When voters are upset with your side, try to feed their outrage about the other side. When the other side is not committing a serious scandal, manufacture some outrage over some other alleged offense.

Much of this inflated umbrage amounts to what NBC's Chuck Todd has called "cable catnip," the sort of pulse-pounding dust-ups that feed our daily media appetites without amounting to much significance when votes finally are cast.

By that standard, the recent redbaiting offenses of Rep. Allen West are a more serious matter. He's not a rock star or a pundit. He's a lawmaker who has turned on his fellow House members with unfounded attacks on their character and patriotism.

At a recent town hall meeting, West said that he thinks as many as 80 House Democrats "are members of the Communist Party. ... It's called the Congressional Progressive Caucus."

His remarks sparked outrage and charges of "McCarthyism" among Democrats -- for good reason. The late Republican Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin similarly claimed to know a list of subversives in the State Department. He never made the list public, and the number of names that he alleged varied widely. His demagogic, reckless and unsubstantiated claims eventually led to his censure by the Senate.

West, too, declined to name names or back up an inch, except to further equate being a "progressive" to membership in the Communist Party. Need I bother to mention that this alleged membership is denied by both members of the caucus and leaders of the real Communist Party? PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times fact-checking website, gave West's claim its biggest-lie rating, "Pants on Fire."

Not that facts matter to those who want to believe this thoroughly unfounded notion anyway. All it takes is the allegation to bring fame, power and lucrative campaign contributions to whoever makes the charge.

McCarthy understood. So apparently does Rep. Michele Bachmann. The Minnesota Republican's biggest early national splash came when she claimed on MSNBC's "Hardball" four years ago that then-candidate Barack Obama and his wife Michelle held anti-American views.

She further called for major newspapers to investigate which members of Congress "are pro-America or anti-America." The resulting attention gave her an early boost toward her 2012 presidential campaign.

A "money blurt" is how the Washington Post has labeled controversial statements that bring a surge in campaign contributions. West apparently got the hint. Within two days of his progressives-equals-Communists blurt he sent out fundraising appeals for help "against attacks from the liberals and the distortions of the corrupt liberal media."

Yes, old-fashioned redbaiting still offers today's enterprising politicians an easy, if ugly, way to raise fame and campaign cash. All they have to do is abuse the very democratic freedoms they claim to be defending.

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