The Freedom to Call People "Terrorists"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 2 2011 4:31 PM

The Freedom to Call People "Terrorists"

The founders are as venerated now as they've ever been, but for reasons that elude me, they're remembered in a way-too-sanitized way. They The founders were slashing, petty, mean slingers of insults. They spent far more time drafting angry letters and editorials than they did drafting the Constitution. They called each other bastards and octoroons. Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton because he'd heard that Hamilton insulted him at a dinner. And so on.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

I bring this up to discuss the stupid outrage over this reported exchange between Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn., and Joe Biden, during yesterday's come-to-Satan budget pow-wow.

“We have negotiated with terrorists,” an angry Doyle said, according to sources in the room. “This small group of terrorists have made it impossible to spend any money.”
Biden, driven by his Democratic allies’ misgivings about the debt-limit deal, responded: “They have acted like terrorists.”
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If it wasn't for the miraculous return of Gabby Giffords, this would have been an even bigger story; that event cut the bitterness somewhat. But it's a big enough story to incite Republicans to complain about it. Palin, who's been fairly distant* and lazy in the debt fight, condemned Biden, as did Michele Bachmann. Because Bachmann's somewhat relevant I'll focus on her quote.

Only in the bizarro world of Washington is fiscal responsibility sometimes defined as terrorism. Our belief that America should live within its means and not spend more than it takes in distinguishes us as patriots who love our country, not to be equated with the terrorists whose sole aim is to destroy it.

You know what? Stop whining. All (maybe) Biden and (definitely) other Democrats here did was lean on a cliche. The cliche is: "I will not negotiate with terrorists." The point Democrats are/were making was that by refusing to back an increase of the debt limit unless certain conditions were met, Republicans were threatening to damage the nation's credit rating or force a partial government shutdown. Which they were. Try and prove that wrong. You can't, because it's exactly what happened. No one had tried a move like this with the debt limit before. Republicans almost did in 1995, but they gave up, because the politics were rotten.

If you don't want your opponent to label you a hostage-taker, here's a idea: Don't take hostages. You could argue that this fight was more like an intervention, or a trip to one of those "scared stright" camps, where there's no ransom. But all of these situations involve the prospect of harm to a third party in exchange for concessions from a second party. And that's not uncommon in politics. You guys are in politics. Don't pretend you're in mortal danger if someone uses a label you don't like and you're not next to your fainting couch.

UPDATE: John McCormack points me over to Jonah Goldberg's righteously indignant op-ed on the topic:

The Giffords shooting sent the media elite in this country into a bout of St. Vitus’s dance that would have warranted an army of exorcists in previous ages. Sarah Palin’s Facebook map was an evil totem that forced some guy to go on a shooting spree... Everyone “knew” the shooter was a tea partier. Except he wasn’t. He wasn’t even a conservative. He was a sick, demented, nutball. And it still didn’t matter! More bleating and caterwauling about the “tone” followed. More chin stroking and tut-tutting from Meet the Press roundtables and “very special segments” on the Today Show. More pizzas were ordered for the Media Matters galley slaves.

And there's more. I totally agree with this, and tried to say so in this piece after the Giffords shooting. That piece was published after this initial take; a number of people on Twitter have been bringing that take up to ask whether I'm being hypocritical here. Sorry, don't see it. My initial political reaction to the Giffords shooting was that it would kick off a round of recriminations about conservative political rhetoric. And it did. It was brain-meltingly dumb. Even when I wrote about the Sarah Palin "target map," I wrote that there was no reason at all to believe that Jared Loughner was inspired by Palin. I was mostly gawking at how poorly Team Palin handed the scrutiny. But the scrutiny was stupid! We want more of that because... why?

Looking back just over the Biden stuff, I see something that should really be satisfying to a Republican politician. You took the debt limit hostage and demanded conditions. You fought the Democrats from a position of "clean debt limit or nothing" to a 10-year program of cuts. You drove 'em crazy enough to inspire a rhetorical meltdown in the final pre-vote meeting. Don't be offended. Be gloating.

*This was originally autocorrected to "distaff." Which doesn't make sense.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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