One of the great ironies of the past decade and a half is that the term "the politics of personal destruction" has come to be associated with what Republicans did to President Bill Clinton.
Republicans have been known to go over the top now and then. But it is Democrats who have trademarked the personal attack, the attribution of base motives and the assassination of character as their m.o.
Some Republicans have recently demonstrated a healthy intolerance for business as usual. Take the case of Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy versus Richard V. Cheney. After accusing Vice President Cheney of personal corruption (concerning Halliburton), Leahy offered a fulsome greeting to Cheney when the two came face to face at a Senate photo shoot.
This is fairly classic Democrat behavior, as well. Call someone every name in the book in public, but behave in private as if it's all a big game. When Robert Bork was doing his courtesy calls on senators after being nominated to the Supreme Court, he visited the senior senator from Massachusetts. Kennedy, who had just declared "Robert Bork's America" to be a place where citizens feared "the midnight knock on the door" and blacks were forced to eat "at segregated lunch counters," mumbled congratulations to Bork on his nomination and added that his comments were "nothing personal." You're a fascist and a racist -- but nothing personal.
This time, Cheney was having none of it. When Leahy attempted the old hail-fellow-well-met routine, Cheney delivered an Anglo-Saxon rebuke.
But the accusation remains the preferred style of political combat for Democrats. There are no honest disagreements, no sincere policy differences. If you oppose the Democrats, you are evil, or racist, or insensitive, or (the most common smear) a tool of big business. A recent inductee into the falsely accused Hall of Fame is my friend Daniel Troy, currently serving as general counsel at the Food and Drug Administration.
Troy has been attacked in U.S. News and World Report, the Denver Post and the Boston Globe. He is being described as "too close to those he regulates" because he played a minor role in a case involving Pfizer Pharmaceuticals when he was in private practice. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., devotes almost his entire website to Troy-bashing. "FDA's Chief Counsel Serves Industry, Not Public" blares one press release. Hinchey has taken matters beyond public relations. He has proposed to cut funding for the general counsel's office in order to reign in this runaway big business attack dog.
What's really at issue here is product liability. Though it's difficult to detect this in an atmosphere of name-calling and motive questioning, there is a policy difference between the two parties on the matter. Democrats (more than ever with John Edwards on the ticket) believe that there should be no curbs on product liability and other personal injury cases. They argue that the courts are the only recourse for those who've been injured or worse through negligence on the part of companies, doctors or other "deep pockets."
Republicans argue that personal injury cases have gone too far. They point to the fact that a handful of trial lawyers have become fabulously wealthy by playing upon juries' sympathies for individual plaintiffs -- while the cost is borne by the rest of us.
Fear of litigation is keeping good drugs off the market (there are no morning sickness or other pregnancy drugs in the pipeline because fear of lawsuits has made drug companies shy). Many doctors (particularly obstetricians) are giving up the practice of medicine due to the steep malpractice premiums charged in many markets. Innocent doctors and others are ruined when patients suffer a poor outcome -- even if there was nothing the doctor could have done to prevent it. And the price of nearly every product we buy is higher than it would otherwise be to cover a liability premium. This is like a regressive tax, since it harms the poor more than the rich.
Troy has argued, on the FDA's behalf, that when the agency determines a drug or device to be safe, the state courts should not be able to decide the matter. The trial lawyers are incensed. Troy is a tool of the drug companies, they scream. Hardly. Dan Troy pushed through a generic drug rule that amounted to a wealth transfer of $35 billion over 10 years from the name-brand drug companies to the generics and to consumers. But he should not have to defend his honor (which is spotless). His opponents should have to defend theirs -- for engaging in character assassination instead of debate.