The Ascendant 'Smear Wing' of the Conservative Movement

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The right once inveighed against "Borking" and race-baiting. In opposing Chuck Hagel, a part of its neoconservative wing is doing both.

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ChuckHagel.com, an anti-Hagel website.

When Robert Bork died, many conservatives praised his scholarly output and lamented his treatment in the Senate, where Ted Kennedy warned of back-alley abortions, segregated lunch counters, and rogue police if Bork was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Writing in The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin endorsed the idea that this was the most infamous moment in modern Senate history, writing that "Bork's name became a verb, meaning to dismember one's reputation and distort one's views for political advantage." It wasn't just unfair, she wrote, it hurt America: "The Borking of Bork was the beginning of the polarization of the confirmation process that has turned our courts into partisan war zones, resulting in more ideologically divided opinions and less intellectually adventurous nominees on the left and the right." Given Kennedy's shoddy behavior, it's wrong to feel nostalgic for him, she concluded.

I no longer have the capacity to be surprised by staggering contradictions in Rubin's writing. It is still noteworthy that, weeks later, she has this to say about Chuck Hagel's bid for secretary of defense:

If Republicans had nervy firebrands like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, someone would rise up to declare, "Chuck Hagel's America is a land in which gays would be forced back in the closet and Jews would be accused of dual loyalty. Chuck Hagel's world is one in which devastating defense cuts become a goal, not a problem; we enter direct talks with the terrorist organization Hamas; and sanctions on Iran wither."

The Hagel nomination expected to come on Monday is so outrageous and the rationale for his nomination so weak that it becomes an easy no vote for all Republicans.

In a followup post, she ponders confirmation hearings that become "a feeding frenzy with GOP senators nailing Hagel on his views and past comments," a prospect to which she doesn't object. In another item she asks, as if these are the only choices, "Will Hagel make it to the confirmation hearing, to be shredded by disgusted Republicans and nervous Democrats, or like Harriet Miers, must excuses be made for him to depart before much damage is done?" 

Rubin's hypocrisy is but one example of an integrity problem that's driving a lot of people away from movement conservatism. Some of the disaffected are right-leaning individuals who really did think rhetoric of the sort that Kennedy employed was polarizing, immoral, and damaging to America. Unlike Rubin, they don't want to see rhetoric of that sort employed even against "the other side." 

Many more right-leaning Americans have a visceral aversion to race-baiting and frivolous accusations of bigotry. When they complained about Al Sharpton and the immorality of his most dubious rhetoric, they earnestly thought he was conducting himself in a way that no one should. It's little wonder that they're disgusted when they see the neoconservative wing of the conservative movement smearing Hagel like a conservative caricature of left-leaning race-baiters.

It takes a long time to change a brand. Older conservatives I talk to still believe it's liberals and Democrats who cynically play politics with race -- and for the record, sometimes they do exactly that. But when I talk to people who are my age, it's evident how effective the conservative movement has been at destroying whatever relative credibility it enjoyed on that issue. You can't claim it's liberals who are race obsessed when Rush Limbaugh* is the most popular entertainer in your movement. (If you're somehow unaware of his penchant for frivolous accusations of racism or absurd racial provocations, now you know.) You can't claim it's liberals who try to destroy people with thin accusations of racism when conservative hero Andrew Breitbart was so eager to prove the NAACP was racist that he published and publicized a misleadingly edited tape of that Shirley Sherrod speech without even bothering to watch the whole thing.

And you can't complain about "Borking" when you oppose a cabinet nominee that you don't like by orchestrating a smear campaign that suggests, for the thinnest of reasons, that he is an anti-Semite.

The notion that "turnabout is fair play" is now endemic in the conservative movement. Right-wing partisans, who conceive of the left as deeply immoral, have no compunction about copying what they perceive to be the tactics of "the other side." They're increasingly willing to do so without shame, as Matthew Continetti showed in his mission statement for the decadent and unethical Washington Free Beacon. It's apparently very easy for partisans to embrace a sort of moral relativism where they routinely justify behavior in themselves that they'd excoriate if "the other side" did it. I have no insight into their moral reasoning, if they even bother with such a thing. But I can tell you that they're part of the reason the average American looks at the battles of Washington, D.C., and concludes that everyone engaging in them is a petulant hypocrite. It's no wonder that so many young people who fit more naturally on the right than the left are so horrified by the conservative movement and the Republican Party in their present incarnations that they'd never dream of joining either. When all a movement stands for is beating the other guys, no matter how odious the tactics, it doesn't attract converts.

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• It isn't just race-baiting that makes Limbaugh odious either. You should've seen his Web site on Monday. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the mindset of a Heritage Foundation spokesman and Claremont Institute Statesmanship Award Winner:

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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