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Being against is becoming a political value

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic floor leader, last week got some attention for praising his colleague Rand Paul of Kentucky, a symbol of libertarian conservatism.

“I spent a lot of time with him and I’ve grown to really like him,” Reid said. “Even though he has some set political views, he wants to get things done here.”

Then Reid said something else rather interesting: “I hope I don’t ruin him with the Republicans.”

Politico did its best to help this problem along by running the story under the headline “Harry Reid’s new pal.”

Reid was joking, but the problem he describes is no joke. When the kind of polarization that makes it a crime of disloyalty for Republicans and Democrats to lunch together, much less work together, was confined to Congress it limited the damage. But now the same disease afflicts legislatures across the country.

Politicians are being branded not by their actual stances but by labels. When the conservative Reid moved up from Democratic whip to Democratic leader, the rank and file of the Democratic Party was dismayed. They preferred a strong liberal, particularly Richard Durbin of Illinois. Reid, after all, was every Republican’s favorite Democrat, who as whip had accommodated them on the floor of the Senate. GOP members like John Cornyn and Trent Lott praised him.

But few in the GOP rank and file knew that. All they knew was that Reid was the new Democratic leader, which they saw as license to hate him, which they did with a vengeance. Soon a writer on a website called Blogs for Bush was expressing a public wish for Reid’s death, a sample of the poisonous new politics into which Reid had stepped.

In 2005, when George W. Bush nominated Harriet Miers to be a supreme court justice, she quickly undertook the traditional tour of congressional offices to introduce herself. One of her first stops was Reid’s office, where they hit it off. Emerging from the meeting, Reid praised her real world experience.

“Anyone who has that background makes me feel good,” he said. “I’m very happy that we have someone like her.” He said he wasn’t yet endorsing her, that he wanted to reserve judgment until after hearings on her nomination, but he also later issued a formal statement that included the widely quoted sentence, “I like Harriet Miers.”

Reid’s comments made evangelicals and rightists freak out. Soon headlines were appearing like this one in the Virginia Free Lance-Star: “Some Dems coming to Miers’ defense/Republicans still divided over nomination.” The right quickly lined up against the Bush nominee and within 25 days of her nomination she had withdrawn.

This kind of thing, where the blessing of a senator becomes a liability just because he is a member of a particular party, is becoming more of a factor in today’s politics. It has often appeared in polarized times like Vietnam or the McCarthy era. Politicians are being defined by what they aren’t. It has become more important to know what politicians are against than what they are for, and there have got to be consequences for such a negative form of politics.

In medicine there’s something called a diagnosis of exclusion (per exclusionem). It means diagnosing a condition through a process of elimination, usually because it has not been determined with certainty from testing or whatever. In effect, the malady is being negatively defined by what it is not. This, unfortunately, inserts a level of uncertainty into the diagnosis.

Last week a newly christened George McGovern and Bob Dole Leadership Award was given to the ailing Dole for his work on hunger issues. It occasioned a considerable amount of commentary on the fact that George McGovern and Robert Dole, both U.S. senators who were nominated by their parties for the presidency, had worked together on issues where their views overlapped even though they disagreed on most things.

There was similar commentary four years ago when Edward Kennedy died and many pointed out that Kennedy and Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah had a working partnership even though they agreed on little.

With the ongoing deterioration of civility in politics, how long will it be before we run out of these kinds of examples?

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.