The following year, George H.W. Bush ran a tough race against Michael Dukakis. The fact that a race against the Muppet-robot former governor of Massachusetts needed to be tough beggars the imagination today, but Bush actually started out 17 points behind Dukakis. Liberals thought Bush was too tough on poor Dukakis, who seemed to be doing much of the heavy lifting in his own destruction anyway, what with his disastrous tank ride and nonchalant response to the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife.
But Republicans believed that they had to match the Democrats “tone for tone, blow for blow.”
In 1991, Bush nominated Clarence Thomas for the high court, and Democrats attempted to replay their Bork triumph and likewise destroy Thomas. But Thomas would not be goaded into the meat grinder. This remains the outrage according to liberals today: He refused to go quietly into the night.
In 1992, Bill Clinton introduced the phrase “the politics of personal destruction” to the lexicon. Clinton used it preemptively to delegitimize scrutiny of his private life. After all, the accusations against Thomas — he allegedly asked a subordinate out on a date; he joked about a pubic hair — were of Disneyesque innocence compared with almost every Saturday night in Little Rock for Clinton. In a world where the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill standard was held consistently, Clinton would not have been qualified to be a tollbooth attendant on the New Jersey Turnpike. Hence, he called for an end to the ratcheting up of the gotcha game before he himself got got.
But it didn’t work. His private life spilled out for public viewing, steaming in the cold air.
Liberals were outraged, sometimes fairly, often not. But they felt they needed to respond tone for tone, blow for blow. They scoured the private lives of Clinton’s “tormentors” for dirt, and they often found it.
There’s more, of course. The Florida recount saw Republicans feeling justified to do whatever it took — even fight like Democrats — to win. The recount, in turn, laid the foundation of bitterness and bile that fuels the omnivorous banshees of the “netroots,” who proudly proclaim they care only about winning and being as ruthless as they imagine the Republicans are.
But at this point you know the story. In Ted Kennedy’s America, it’s blow for blow and eye for eye now, and everyone is blind to how we got here.