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Could our politics actually get uglier? I’m afraid so

LAST WEEK, a woman in Hilton Head asked John McCain a question that referred to Hillary Clinton by a five-letter word for a female dog.

Sen. McCain reacted about the way many guys would: He tried to keep his composure, failed momentarily, then finally mastered himself enough to say, very soberly and sincerely, that he had the highest respect for his Senate colleague. And after a priggish CNN announcer’s failure to portray Sen. McCain as being to blame in the incident, and the McCain campaign’s lame attempt to parlay that into sympathy and campaign contributions, the whole thing sort of faded, making way for the next round of spin-cycle nonsense.

But the incident still worries me, for reasons that have nothing to do with who called whom what, or how anybody responded.

I worry that it never occurred to anyone to wonder to whom the obnoxious question referred. I worry that within 24 hours of the clip appearing on YouTube, there was a Web site up selling T-shirts emblazoned with that question. I worry that there are those who will buy such T-shirts, and that such people increasingly define the tone of political discourse.

The same day that the “b-word” incident came to my attention, an op-ed piece appeared in The Wall Street Journal headlined “The Insanity of Bush Hatred.” Those who call themselves “liberals” will now snort in derision and say, “That’s The Wall Street Journal for you!” But it was actually a pleasingly dispassionate treatment of the subject by a professor named Peter Berkowitz who looks about at some of his colleagues and worries about “the damage hatred inflicts on the intellect.” I worry more about the damage it inflicts on our republic.

Mr. Berkowitz, after noting that “Hating the president is almost as old as the republic itself... Reagan hatred, Nixon hatred, LBJ hatred,” and so forth, frets that “Bush hatred is different,” because of the way many intellectuals have not only embraced that impulse, but endorsed it as a virtue, and proclaimed “that their hatred is not only a rational response to the president and his administration but a mark of good moral hygiene.”

I see it as something else — the next, more virulent stage of the political disease once known as “Clinton hatred,” which itself was qualitatively uglier than previous forms of political resentment, within my lifetime at least. I trace the onset of symptoms to the first days after the 1992 elections, when “Don’t blame me; I voted for Bush” started appearing on late-model cars.

And things just got worse from there. Many Republicans never accepted that Bill Clinton was the president of their country, and for eight years treated him as though he were the illegitimate leader of some enemy nation. I thought things couldn’t get worse, and looked forward to the end of the Clinton era as a time when partisans could regain their sanity.

Lord help me, I was so wrong. From Day One — nay, before Day One of the Bush presidency — there was a virulence aimed at the man like nothing I could have imagined. And no, it’s not about the Iraq War. I can recall asking colleagues, before Sept. 11, 2001, to help me get my mind around why so many Democrats hated the man so. This was actually qualitatively worse than what I’d seen aimed at Clinton, and that floored me.

I wish I could believe that the Bush-haters are right, that there is something — or many things — about the man that make such passionate dislike rational. I would like to think that because the alternative possibility — that this is a degenerative national syndrome that feeds on itself, and gets worse with each shift of power — is just too awful.

Except for a precious few days in the fall of 2001, this savage polarization of the electorate has crippled our national will in a time of great crisis, a time when we need to be taking difficult actions — from waging war to retooling our economy away from oil — that are unachievable without strong consensus.

At this point some Democratic readers are getting steamed, thinking I’m blaming them. But I don’t care whether it’s their fault, or Mr. Bush’s. There’s plenty of blame to go around, much of it of the well-deserved variety.

I’m more concerned about the effect. I’m worried that the most polarizing individual in the Democratic Party is, day by day, looking more certain to be that party’s nominee. And that is not to blame Mrs. Clinton — it’s just a fact that if she is the nominee, we’re on a downhill rush toward a general election of such bitterness that it may make us nostalgic for 2000. And I’m not sure there is anything that either she or the GOP nominee will be able to do or say to stop it. What do you do about a Zeitgeist in which a woman is unashamed to ask a candidate, publicly, the question that was asked of Sen. McCain last week?

As I look upon the threats to our nation’s future — our dependence on tyrants’ oil, the rise of Islamofascism, the relentless rivalries of a booming China and an aggressive Russia descending again into authoritarianism — there is one menace that looms more urgently than others: the possibility that the partisan bitterness militating against rational discussion of policy in this country could get worse.

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