"You know," Tom Daschle stage-whispered, "we see it in foreign countries and we think, `Well, my God, how can this religious fundamentalism become so violent?' Well, it's that same shrill rhetoric, it's that same shrill power that motivates. ... And that's happening in this country."
More: "What happens when Rush Limbaugh attacks those of us in public life is that people aren't just content to listen," explained the soon-to-be Senate minority leader. "People want to act because they get emotional ... and the threats to those of us in public life go up dramatically, against us and against our families, and it's very disconcerting."
Since pretty much everyone thinks Daschle's comments against talk-show host Rush Limbaugh were stupid -or "overstated" or "mishandled," to use the more polite language of liberal and non-partisan observers -let's just stipulate that they were exactly that and move on.
Instead, let's recognize that Daschle is not a stupid man. So why would he indict a popular conservative commentator with some 20 million listeners? Hmmmmm. Rush Limbaugh's answer is that Daschle is trying to delegitimize Rush, to curb his influence in American politics. Rush proclaimed on-air that Daschle's comments amounted to a "well-thought-out strategy by the Democrats to counter the influence of this program." He continued: "Every time the Democrats lose, either elections or a major issue, they blame me, they blame talk radio and they blame you."
While I think Rush may be on to a few things here, he's missing the story. Sure, the Democrats are kick-the-cat angry that there's not a single liberal voice on talk radio who's even remotely as influential as Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or G. Gordon Liddy. Sure, it drives liberals crazy to the point of abject denial that millions of working-class folks, stay-at-home-moms and generally decent Americans will spend hours listening to Limbaugh but couldn't stomach Mario Cuomo's talk-show prattle for 15 minutes.
But that's not why Daschle went after Limbaugh. The most likely reason, other than perhaps the fact Daschle picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue, is that Daschle is actually very smart and deeply, deeply cynical.
Let's deal with the cynicism first. As Chris Caldwell notes in the current Weekly Standard, Daschle's own party and supporters are as guilty of mouthing "shrill rhetoric" perhaps far worse and certainly no better than Limbaugh's over the last decade.
The Democratic Party told voters in some states that electing Republicans would result in more Church burnings. Alec Baldwin exclaimed that Henry Hyde should be stoned to death for participating in the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Syndicated columnist Julianne Malveaux openly wished on PBS that Clarence Thomas would eat so much fatty foods that he would drop dead. Jesse Jackson accused the GOP of deliberately targeting Holocaust survivors for disenfranchisement in the 2000 election. A Democratic ad in the last election featured George Bush pushing an old lady off a cliff. And don't even get me started on the collected sayings of Paul Begala and James Carville.
Daschle is apparently untroubled by these shrill comments; he's only disturbed by conservative shrillness. Well, fair enough. Daschle is a partisan man. Which brings us to his real aim. Daschle knows he can't dent Limbaugh's influence with such absurd comments. If anything, Limbaugh's stature only increases because of all of this. That's how it works in Washington; when leading pols mention their critics by name, the critic's stock goes up not down.
No, Daschle's real aim was to win the support and admiration of the people who already agree with him. The Democratic Party has made the collective decision to become an aggressively liberal party. This is in part because the moderates got their heads handed to them in the last election. But it's also because the Democratic Party is dominated, and will remain dominated, by presidential hopefuls.
As is always the case, Democrats run far to the left up to and through the presidential primaries in order to win the party's base. Well, the base of the Democratic Party loathes Rush Limbaugh and believes that he's the devil's harbinger of religious intolerance.
For Daschle to be seen as the chief victim and critic of Rush Limbaugh is a political boon. And if uttering such idiotic prattle is the price for winning the Dems' allegiance, it's a tiny price to pay. What this says about the people who nodded when Daschle made his comments is a subject for another day.