Hell Hath No Fury

...like a political adviser scorned

In last week’s Democratic debate, Bill Richardson interrupted a bout of fighting among his fellow candidates:

The important thing is that we need to stay positive. We need to have disagreements on the issues, not on whether you can trust.

The only possible conclusion to be reached about his statement, according to political pundits? It’s politically expedient for Richardson to cast himself as the nice guy. He was angling for the running-mate nod.

Maybe it is, and maybe he was. Still, it’s a sad (and cynical) commentary on the current political climate that the notion of staying positive is so easily suspect—and that the courtesy card, apparently, is a de facto ticket for a seat on the proverbial turnip truck.

I bring this up because I just read a blog post from Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, John Edwards’s “rural adviser” (seriously), about Tuesday’s Democratic victories. “Yesterday was a good day to be a Democrat,” Saunders writes on The Huffington Post, “as our brethren in the so-called red states grabbed their lunch pails and beat up on some Republicans.”

Saunders continues:

The southern Dems made major gains in Virginia and Mississippi and recaptured both Senates. In Kentucky, Governor-elect Steve Beshear understood the power of culture, got into a “values” battle with “devoid of values” incumbent Governor Ernie Fletcher and beat the hell out of him with what the Republicans have used as a wedge. As a southern Democrat, I am not ashamed to admit that there is no high like beating the hell out of a Republican in the south with their own stick.

Let me repeat that: There is no high like beating the hell out of a Republican in the south with their own stick.

That Saunders, as one of Edwards’s staffer-slash-spinners, would have an agenda in writing for the HuffPo is obvious. (So is the notion, perhaps, that someone whose nickname is “Mudcat” would take a fight-to-the-death approach to campaign rhetoric.) Nor is it terribly surprising that Saunders would assume that the HuffPo’s politically liberal readers would appreciate rhetoric that washes the Republican tent in a cascade of vitriol. Saunders is preaching to the converted, after all.

But that’s precisely what’s so frustrating here. Saunders takes for granted not only that readers will agree with his over-the-top language, but also that its very violence will, in fact, serve as a rallying cry: a blog-born Rebel Yell for Mudcat’s political “rebels” and their cause. Never mind that the metaphors Saunders uses in the service of his message are clich├ęd to the point of comedy: the innocent kid (Democrats), finally pushed too far, beats up the schoolyard bully (Republicans); the caged, wild animal (Republicans) lashing out at its captor (Democrats); the snake (Republicans) that “can still bite you until you cut off its head.” Saunders even, through his sly choice of words, suggests an apocalyptic nature to the “Republican onslaught in ‘08.” (The Republicans’ “eminent coming”—one assumes he means “imminent,” but mistakes like this are understandable from someone still coming down from the high of a good ol’ Republican-bashing—and, later, the fact that they’re “coming with the fury of hell,” etc.)

As if this weren’t comical enough, Saunders casts ’08’s eminent/imminent battle in morally epic terms, suggesting a contemporary political version of Paradise Lost in which the Democrats are god’s army and the Republicans are the fallen angels in the guise of—not to lay it on too thick—a snake:

Believe it or not, the Republicans are coming with the fury of Hell. For those who think the Republicans are done for, we must never, never, never forget they are like a cornered animal and will do anything next year. A snake can still bite you until you cut off its head.

What’s most ridiculous about this staging, though, is Saunders’s blanket assumption of its epic validity. And what’s most maddening about it is the moral weight that that assumption gives to the political “battles” that will be waged in ’08—the very posturing that raises tempers on the one hand and precludes productive debate on the other. To be a Democrat—and a liberal—is not necessarily to believe that Republicans are “snakes,” or to take perverse pleasure in “beating them.” Just as to be a Republican—and conservative—is not necessarily to believe that Democrats are latte-drinking communists.

Which is all patently, painfully obvious. But it’s also, as Saunders so conveniently reminds us, easily forgotten in a culture where partisan propaganda is as entrenched as it is trenchant.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.