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Speech and Debate

Hopefully, the overtures toward rhetorical moderation can hold.


Cohen: Over the line.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Tonight, as Congress gathers for the State of the Union address, many members have pledged to sit with colleagues from the other party, eschewing the tradition of Democrats sitting to the president’s right and Republicans to his left.

While it is obviously just a symbolic gesture, it at least shows an acknowledgment that voters have grown tired of the hyperbole and excessive partisanship that has come to be the norm in Washington. The first question to come to my mind, though, was, “But which Republicans will sit with Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.?”


Liberals and some Democrats have come to convince themselves that the only purveyors of hate in politics today are on the right. To be sure, there are plenty of conservative dispensers of political venom in the media and in elected office today. But when a fellow Democrat or liberal becomes just as vicious and hyperbolic, many on the left look the other way or chalk the hateful speech up to over-enthusiasm or rationalize that the situation warranted an extreme response.

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and more than a dozen wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., Republicans responsibly delayed the scheduled debate and vote on the repeal of health care reform. Both sides of the aisle struck an informal arrangement to dial back the rhetoric and mean-spiritedness that the public had had enough of.

Apparently, Cohen failed to get the memo. Complaining about Republican objections to last year’s health care reform law, the third-term Democrat said on the floor last Tuesday night, “They don’t like the truth so they summarily dismiss it. They say it’s a government takeover of health care; a big lie just like Goebbels,” referring to Joseph Goebbels, who was propaganda minister to Adolf Hitler. “You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually people believe it. Like blood libel. That’s the same kind of thing.”


Cohen went on to say that “the Germans said enough about the Jews and the people believed it and you had the Holocaust.” Closing the circle Cohen concluded, “You tell a lie over and over again. And we’ve heard it on this floor. Government takeover of health care.”

There is no place in American politics for this kind of talk and it certainly has no place on the floor of the House. This kind of behavior, on par with Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouting “you lie” to President Obama during his September 2009 address to a joint session of Congress on health care reform, is so beyond the pale that it reflects badly on every single member of Congress, past and present. It is shameful.

Of course, most members of Congress, Democrat or Republican, do not say such things.  But when even backbench members like Cohen, Wilson, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., or former Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., make such over-the-line remarks, it reflects poorly on all members of their party.

Average people, many of whom have never heard of the offender, hear such outbursts and they see it as an expression of the point of view and behavior of all elected officials in that party. The deplorable behavior of one is projected on all of them. Just as Wilson’s outburst stained the reputation of all of his House Republican colleagues, Cohen has done the same to Democrats.


With such over-the-top rhetoric, it is no surprise that the lack of trust and spirit of cooperation that is crucial to the functioning of a democracy has brought Washington to the point of dysfunction.

But the media has some responsibilities as well. In the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shooting, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes told Russell Simmons of the blog, “I told all of our guys, ‘shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually.’ ” Ailes went on to say, “You don’t have to do it with bombast. I hope the other side does that.”

Though I am a political analyst under contract with NBC News, I have no idea the details and exact circumstances that led to MSNBC terminating their relationship with Keith Olbermann. Olbermann apologized on air for any inflammatory rhetoric the day Giffords was shot. But Olbermann’s mean-spiritedness and bile was just as vicious as some of his counterparts on the right, and I would like to think that his termination was an answer to Ailes’ gesture.

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Just as politicians are addicted to getting into the news, the media is in a constant desperate search for viewership increases and Internet hits. They see it as essential to their survival but forget about the consequences.

It is unfortunate when the most partisan of Democrats and Republicans, who are deeply committed to their causes, lose their ability to modulate and lose sight of the boundaries between spirited debate and grotesque language and hurtful metaphors.

When the American people tune in tonight and see President Obama at the podium, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, seated behind him, along with members of Congress and the Supreme Court in front of him, they would like to think that these men and women are working for the common good and the future of the country, and that they’re not just petty pugilists trying to outdo each other in rhetorical excesses. Let’s hope that is what they will see not just tonight but in the days, weeks, and months to come.

This article appears in the January 25, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.

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