Government shutdown spurs name-calling; a turn-off or a turn-on?

“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” — President Obama, in his second inaugural speech

So much for that.

I happen to hold with those who think that Republicans have engineered an unpopular government shutdown for reasons that border on irrational. They want to kill Obamacare, which is already the law of the land, and they want debt-ceiling leverage by threatening to withhold money they’ve already spent.

House Republicans pulling the shutdown strings in concert with deep-pocketed anti-government groups are the well-groomed equivalent of the Occupy movement; there’s no way they will get what they want, but they’re gonna trample the grass and leave a lot of trash behind.


But since no reasoned debate seems possible in this scenario, frustrated Democrats have resorted to the kind of name-calling the president warned against.

On CNN last month, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the House’s tea party Republicans “legislative arsonists.”

Democratic California Rep. George Miller accused Republicans of waging “jihad against Americans’ access to healthcare.

In a letter to constituents, Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren described Republicans as an “anarchy gang” engaged in “anarchist tirades.”


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called House Speaker John A. Boehner a “coward” and said, “It’s time for my Republican friends to defy their tea party overlords.”

“What we’re not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest,” senior White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer told CNN.

The president, who has tended the broken hearts of many communities victimized by mass shootings, has ratcheted up the tension with violent gun metaphors of his own.

On Friday, during a calculated visit to a sandwich shop near the White House, Obama accused Republicans of negotiating with “a gun held to the head of the American people.”


Even frustrated Republicans are calling each other names. California Rep. Devin Nunes called his shutdown-happy Republican brethren “lemmings in suicide vests.”

Is the invective working? Maybe so. Even Americans who don’t like Obamacare disapprove of shutting down government as a way of blocking it. That’s why one conservative commentator has dubbed the 80 or so House Republicans who agitated for the shutdown the “suicide caucus.”

“They’re not saying these things off the cuff,” said Peter Woolley, director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University research group Public Mind. “They are saying this to a public that wants them to frame the issue, and wants them to frame it in stark terms. So, in a basic sense, name-calling is essential.”

Last year, after New Jersey’s prickly Republican governor, Chris Christie, called a gay Democratic state legislator “numb nuts” for suggesting that Christie’s stance against gay marriage put him in the metaphorical company of segregationist Southern Govs. George Wallace of Alabama and Lester Maddox of Georgia, Woolley’s group polled New Jersey voters about their tolerance for name calling.


Most — 87% — said politicians should be respectful and avoid slinging insults.

“A lot of name-calling is throwing red meat to your partisan base,” said Woolley, who seemed to flinch when I told him that conservatives have dubbed Democratic Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis “Abortion Barbie.” (The insult was coined on Twitter by Erick Erickson of the blog Red State. Davis, who filibustered a restrictive abortion law, is running for Texas governor. Presumably, it was a play on “Caribou Barbie,” a much-less-loaded phrase coined in 2008 to describe then-Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Palin herself used the phrase in her “Saturday Night Live” appearance on Oct. 18 of that year.)

“Whether you’re watching Fox or MSNBC, name-calling does play well to the constituency who shares your dim view and expects some invective,” Woolley said. As he noted in his survey, “civility doesn’t sell any advertising, and it doesn’t necessarily energize voters. People want a spark.”

But there is a large swath of voters for whom name-calling does nothing — the “independent” voters who do not identify closely with either party.


“In fact, it turns them off,” Woolley said. “They hear the name calling and it reinforces their prejudice that politics is a jumble of worthless infighting.”

You know things have gotten bad when even Harry Reid was moved to call for a return to civility after he was chastised for referring to his Senate colleague Ted Cruz of Texas by his first name — a breach of Senate rules — when he accused the tea party overlord of being the “joint speaker” of the House.

“I think we all have to understand that these rules create a little bit of distance so senators are more likely to debate ideas and less likely to talk about personalities,” Reid said. “I am directing a little self-criticism here.”

But only a little.