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 aren’t 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.
“It’s more pronounced,” said Dan Carter, a retired University of South Carolina history professor who’s 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 I’ve ever seen.”
“I can’t remember this much rancor,” she said. “I can’t 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 Gallup’s history.
“It’s clearly related to the fact that they can’t get their act together,” said Frank Newport, Gallup’s 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 Webster’s and Dictionary of American Slang to rhetorically depict Republican opponents in the government-funding and debt-ceiling battle as hijackers and extortionists.
“They’re holding the whole country hostage,” President Barack Obama said of Republican foes in a speech last month in Kansas City, Mo.
“We can’t 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 wouldn’t 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 can’t control the tea party-linked Republican “anarchists” in the House and that he’s 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 he’d 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 can’t recall political Washington behaving as badly as it is today.
“It’s much worse, and it’s 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 you’re able to talk past one another through media, C-SPAN, Twitter.”
Kennelly and others think the lack of civility dates to Gingrich’s 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.”
Today’s lawmakers have simply upped the ante rhetorically, according to Carter.
“I think what has happened is a continuation and acceleration of the process that’s 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. It’s become a din we’ve gotten used to.”