WASHINGTON -- The speaker of the House reportedly hurls the F-word at the Senate majority leader. The president of the United States likens some Republicans to hostage-takers. A House Republican derides his party colleagues as lemmings with suicide vests.
Raw rhetoric and coarse discourse arent new to American politics. But many political observers think that both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have taken the debates over government funding and the debt ceiling to new lows with harshly personalized attacks and demonizing characterizations of opponents.
Its more pronounced, said Dan Carter, a retired University of South Carolina history professor whos the author of The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics.
Former Rep. Barbara Kennelly, D-Conn., a member of the House of Representatives during the Bill Clinton-Newt Gingrich government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, said the lack of political civility and comity this time was as bad as Ive ever seen.
I cant remember this much rancor, she said. I cant remember such a lack of respect.
Neither can American voters, apparently. A new Gallup poll found Congress approval rating at 11 percent, an 8-percentage-point drop from last month and only 1 point above the worst rating in Gallups history.
Its clearly related to the fact that they cant get their act together, said Frank Newport, Gallups editor in chief.
The discourse has been brutally graphic and personal. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., used the street vernacular for an erotic nocturnal fantasy in the House chamber last month in urging Republicans to abandon their radical, ideological . . . dream of linking a federal government funding bill to defunding the Affordable Care Act.
The Obama administration officials and allies have taken to their Websters and Dictionary of American Slang to rhetorically depict Republican opponents in the government-funding and debt-ceiling battle as hijackers and extortionists.
Theyre holding the whole country hostage, President Barack Obama said of Republican foes in a speech last month in Kansas City, Mo.
We cant make extortion routine as part of our democracy, he said during a White House news conference Tuesday.
White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer earned Republican ire when he vowed in a CNN interview last month that the administration wouldnt negotiate on the debt limit with people with a bomb strapped to their chest.
Rep. Devin Nunes of California also embraced the suicide bomber analogy last month against fellow House Republicans for trying to use the government funding bill to kill the health care law.
Lemmings with suicide vests, is how Nunes described them. They have to be more than just a lemming. Because jumping to your death in not enough.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have never been the best of friends, but years of battles over the budget, debt, and deficit have made their tenuous relationship even testier.
For months, Reid has called out Boehner in unusually personal terms, suggesting that he cant control the tea party-linked Republican anarchists in the House and that hes more worried about preserving his speakership than doing his job.
Earlier in the year, Boehner reportedly blew up at Reid outside the Oval Office and told the senator to Go f--- yourself.
Some of this is familiar. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney gave the same advice to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in 2004. Reid, no rhetorical shrinking violet, called President George W. Bush a loser in 2005.
Former Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, thought hed seen and heard it all in Congress when he served under former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
Gingrich conceded that his pique over perceived slights during a flight aboard Air Force One in November 1995 contributed to one shutdown; Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., called then-President Clinton a little bugger on the House floor in December 1995; and Rep. James Moran, D-Va., and then-Rep. Randy Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., nearly came to blows outside the House chamber in November 1995 over Bosnia.
Still, Nussle cant recall political Washington behaving as badly as it is today.
Its much worse, and its going to continue because of the lack of familiarity with one another, said Nussle, who famously wore a paper bag over his head while speaking on the House floor about the House banking scandal. Right now youre able to talk past one another through media, C-SPAN, Twitter.
Kennelly and others think the lack of civility dates to Gingrichs rise from bomb-throwing back-bencher to speaker of the House. Along the way, Gingrich and other Republicans perfected rhetorically framing opponents and their positions in graphic but simple terms such as pathetic, bizarre, sick and intolerant.
Todays lawmakers have simply upped the ante rhetorically, according to Carter.
I think what has happened is a continuation and acceleration of the process thats gotten much more widespread and at a higher political level, he said. It also has to do with broader cultural changes in society, where the cultural tolerance level for this sort of rhetoric has increased. Its become a din weve gotten used to.
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