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They hated him before they respected him

Current politics encourages demonizing our opponents

Former President George W. Bush arrives to the West Front of the Capitol for the Inauguration of Joe Biden in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.
Former President George W. Bush arrives to the West Front of the Capitol for the Inauguration of Joe Biden in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Last week, Chris Cillizza, an old friend from his days at Roll Call, wrote a piece on CNN’s website titled “George W. Bush is unrecognizable in the current Republican Party.”

The column focused on how the GOP has changed, reminding readers of the former president’s “self-proclaimed ‘compassionate conservatism,’” his support for comprehensive immigration overhaul and the value he put on “respect and civility.”

The morphing of the GOP from the Republican Party to the Donald Trump Party is complete and deserves to be mentioned often. But, as a Democratic friend of mine suggested to me, that’s only part of the story.

Even before Bush was reelected in 2004, the Republican president, who is now regarded as a model of reasonableness by many, was seen by most Democrats as a liar and a force for evil.

According to the Dec. 20, 2008, NBC News poll conducted by Hart Research Associates (D) and Public Opinion Strategies (R), when self-identified Democrats were asked about their feelings toward Bush, only 6 percent had a positive view, while 85 percent felt negatively.

Fast-forward to the January 2021 NBC News survey, and Democrats’ opinion of Trump was very similar, 4 percent positive and 91 percent negative.

The hostility toward Bush was so strong late in his first term that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in a June 30, 2004, piece that “a consensus is emerging on the left that Mr. Bush is fundamentally dishonest. Perhaps even evil — a nut, yes, but mostly a liar and a schemer. That view is at the heart of Michael Moore’s scathing new documentary, ‘Fahrenheit 9/11.’”

The veteran columnist went on to talk about liberal conspiracy theories and Bush’s shortcomings, eventually arguing: “Mr. Bush’s central problem is not that he was lying about Iraq, but that he was overzealous and self-deluded. He surrounded himself with like-minded ideologues, and they all told one another that Saddam was a mortal threat to us. They deceived themselves along with the public — a more common problem in government than flat-out lying.”

But these days, it’s not enough to believe that a political opponent might merely be wrong. He or she must be regarded as corrupt and evil. Whatever you think of Bush 43 or Barack Obama, only one recent president has been a threat to our political system — Donald John Trump.

The changing of the parties and our political culture dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the nation fought over civil rights issues, cultural issues like abortion, and the Vietnam War.

The conflict picked up speed again when Bill Clinton was elected, when Bush was declared the winner of the 2000 election, and then during the Obama and Trump years. The stakes were raised after every election, and conspiracy theories grew — on both sides of the aisle.

No, I am definitely NOT arguing that all those developments were equivalent, only that they all ended up stoking the growing political fire that has ultimately produced an angrier, more polarized electorate that sees the opposition as deceitful, corrupt and dishonorable.

Now, folks on the left demand the end to the Senate filibuster, promising that if their party doesn’t do it to enact admittedly important legislation to guarantee voting rights, the Republicans will kill the filibuster anyway when they next control the Senate.

And that might well be the case. (I’m not arguing either way.) Both parties have already taken steps in the recent past to shrink the filibuster, so why should anyone believe both parties won’t do it again if they “need” to?

I’d argue that the larger point is more important. If you believe your opponent is untrustworthy, even evil, why would you be moved by his threats of retaliation? You can’t even believe your adversary will behave honorably anyway.

Of course, the situation is made worse because each side has its cheering squad urging it do something dramatic. Whether it’s on cable TV, the internet or Twitter or via fundraising email, the loudest voices always seem to demand action, no matter the cost.

So, yes, the Republican Party has changed dramatically. You’ll find few like Howard Baker or John McCain or George W. or George H.W. Bush. But you’ll also find few Democrats like John Breaux, Evan Bayh or Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Until each party starts trusting the other, I’m not sure how much headway we can make in reestablishing a system that once worked pretty well, even if you didn’t always like the legislation enacted or the presidential leadership (from Clinton or George W. Bush) on display.

We are a long way from that.

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