Clearly, the No Label movement does not address this issue. Instead, it concentrates on what the authors see as “rhetoric” that “exacerbates” existing problems. Thus they seek to set up and “establish lines that no one should cross.” The problem is, who decides what those lines are? Galston and Frum? Joe Scarborough and Mayor Bloomberg? Stanley Kurtz and myself? Moderate Democrats and Republicans that Galston and Frum like? Or someone else who gives the job to other people?
Yes, there is unnecessary divisiveness, and some at the extremes of both parties — MoveOn.org on the left and some of the Tea Party on the Right — make charges that anger their opponents and are often far-fetched. How many Democrats called George W. Bush a “fascist” and used that term a lot when Ronald Reagan was president? How many conservatives called Barack Obama a Communist and a Marxist, and argued that he was not a U.S. citizen and had no legal birth certificate? We all can easily see how extreme these kind of charges are.
But it is something else when a strong case is made. Stanley Kurtz has explained why he thinks Barack Obama is at heart a socialist. This is the opposite of meaningless name-calling, such as the examples I gave above. Kurtz, as I read his book, was not trying to destroy Obama by smearing him, but rather to shed needed light on the world that made our president what he is — and that is the world of tough Chicago politics combined with left-wing sectarianism that emerged from the socialist movement of the 80s and 90s. “In the name of broadening the political discussion,” Podhoretz observes, “a group called No Labels will come into being with the purpose of … labeling. If you ‘recklessly demonize’ your ‘opponents,’ you will ‘no longer’ be able to ‘do so with impunity.’ They will ‘establish bright lines no one should cross.’ In other words, cross the line and we will label you a ‘reckless demonizer.’ Dare to call Barack Obama a socialist and stand accused of exacerbating problems rather than solving them.”
One is certainly free to disagree with and to challenge Stanley Kurtz’s analysis as David Frum has done here. But in answering Kurtz’s own challenge to Frum, he has moved beyond that to arguing that Kurtz was labeling Obama unfairly in an effort to “delegitmate” him. I have already made my assessment of Kurtz’s book, which you can find here, and I do not wish to again summarize the reasons I find his account credible. What I do find unfair to Kurtz is Frum’s assertion that if one concludes Obama is a socialist, as Kurtz does, such a person is “not looking for an analysis,” but instead is “reaching for an epithet.” I would agree that others have used that as an epithet to attack Obama, but Stanley Kurtz is not guilty of that particular sin.
And speaking of demonization and epithets, what can one make of President Obama’s press conference yesterday, in which he called Republicans “hostage takers;” i.e., kidnappers? And what can one make of other Democrats calling the Republicans “terrorists” whom one should not negotiate with? Is this not demonization? Writing today at Contentions, J.E. Dyer writes perceptively that Obama came off not as presidential, “but as a leftist community organizer.” She notes: “In demonizing his political opponents, lecturing his base, and vowing to fight on in a long struggle, Obama appeared to be channeling his political roots in radical activism. He evoked an activist street fighter on the steps of city hall more than a president of the United States.” Precisely — and this is exactly what Stanley Kurtz gives us in his masterful book: the background to comprehend how and why Obama comes off this way in the present.
We clearly do not need any kind of speech police to try and pinpoint when any politician — including the president — crosses the line and tries to demonize his opponents with smears. When that is done — as is the case with Obama’s performance yesterday — we do not need a new No Labels movement to identify the culprit.
What we do need is serious political dialogue, and I fear that despite their good intentions, Bill Galston and David Frum’s new effort will only serve to prevent that, rather than to stop unfair political smears.