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Decay in the art of political insults

Posted: August 26, 2011 2:55 p.m.
Updated: August 29, 2011 5:00 a.m.

With a presidential contest on the rise, so is the heat of the umbrage wars. That's what I call the endless contest to see which political side can express more outrage about what the other side has to say about them.

Tea party leaders, for example, are taking umbrage at Rep. Maxine Waters, a liberal California Democrat, for the way she expressed her umbrage at the hyper-conservative tea party movement while addressing the unemployed at a forum in Inglewood, Calif. "I'm not afraid of anybody," she said. "This is a tough game. You can't be intimidated. You can't be frightened. And as far as I'm concerned, the 'tea party' can go straight to hell."

I don't agree with the tea party on much, but here they have a point. Waters should lay off the name-calling. It only reduces her to the level of her opponents -- like the tea party.

After all, she's talking about a movement whose supporters famously waved signs at its early rallies that compared President Barack Obama to, among other figures, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, the Joker from "Batman" and a jungle witch doctor with a bone through his nose.

Of course, as tea party leaders were quick to point out, snarky left-wingers sometimes depicted President George W. Bush in similar fashion or worse. Like other virtues, civility is easier to praise than to practice. This is particularly true in politics, a field that shares a peculiar etiquette with professional wrestlers: Never be rude, unless you can blame it on somebody else.

So, true to form, a prominent tea party group's leader fired back at Waters' remarks with a blamestorm that by now is familiar enough for me to abbreviate it: ABO -- Always Blame Obama.

"We've had Democrats calling American citizens 'terrorists' and 'hostage takers,' and now an elected Democratic representative says that we can 'go straight to hell,'" the group Tea Party Patriots said in a statement. "The president and all leaders of the Democratic Party, who have called for civility in the past, are neglecting to censure their own. ... The president's silence on these latest violations of civility has been deafening, but not surprising."

Deafening? "As someone who's been called a socialist, not born here, taking away freedoms for providing health care," Obama told heckler Ryan Rhodes, a tea party leader in Iowa last week, "I'm all for lowering the rhetoric."

The president also could have mentioned being called a "jackass" by radio host Rush Limbaugh, while replaying the president's debt ceiling speech earlier in August.

He could have mentioned Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado saying on another radio show that associating with this president was "like touching a tar baby." Lamborn later apologized when he heard some people find "tar baby" offensive.

Obama also could have mentioned being called "your boy" on MSNBC by my conservative column-writing colleague Pat Buchanan, which raised enough eyebrows for him to explain later in a statement that he was using boxing lingo and meant no offense.

And that's just in the past month. Robust language always has been a part of politics. Sometimes it can be quite lucrative. Just check out the titles of some Ann Coulter best-sellers: "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right," "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" and "Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism."

"Treason?" Maybe that's where Texas Gov. Rick Perry got the idea in an Iowa appearance to describe as "treasonous" the possibility that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke might take further steps to keep interest rates low. Why would Bernanke, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, "play politics," as Perry described it, in this fashion for a Democratic president? Perry did not say.

But he did say of Bernanke, "(W)e would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas." So much for Southern hospitality.

I have a suggestion. Let's call on major politicians, pundits and surrogates to drop a dollar coin into a large container every time they unleash a low blow against their opponents. Call it a "jab jar" maybe. At least our leaders could do something useful to close the government's budget deficit instead of just talking about it.

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