Hitler, Stalin and ... Joe Lieberman?

Dean equates Katherine Harris with Stalin; ImpeachPAC lumps Lieberman in with the neo-Nazis. Are they doing more harm than good?

Published July 28, 2006 4:14PM (EDT)

We stood up for Dick Durbin when he said that an FBI agent's report on abuses he'd seen at Guantánamo recalled things done "by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime." The stakes were high enough to warrant that sort of language, and it was -- well, it was right.

We say this at the outset as a sort of benchmark for what comes next. There's a time and a place for invoking words like "Nazi" and names like Hitler and Stalin, and you've got to choose them pretty carefully. Do it right and you underscore your point: When U.S. soldiers and intelligence officers abused detainees at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib -- when the policies of the Bush administration allowed and even encouraged that abuse -- they robbed America of some of its high moral ground in the "war on terror," and it was appropriate to call them on it in the most dramatic language available. But use the words at the wrong time -- when they're not necessary or the target isn't worthy -- and you distract from the real issues and invite your "victim" to proclaim pain and outrage.

Which brings us to Howard Dean and ImpeachPAC.

Dean has done a ton of good for the Democratic Party. But in a speech in West Palm Beach earlier this week, he made himself the issue again by equating Katherine Harris to Joseph Stalin. It was entirely unnecessary: Dean was speaking to a luncheon crowd of just 250; Harris is among the most marginal Republican candidates in America, trailing Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson by 37 points in the latest poll; and Dean was referring to Harris' role in the contested 2000 election, a subject that would have fired up his Democratic audience if he had discussed it in the dispassionate language of an accountant. And what did he get out of the deal? Some applause from the folks at the luncheon. And now, in addition to the stories about Harris as tantrum thrower, Harris as recipient of illegal campaign contributions, and Harris as lost cause, we'll see a news cycle full of stories about Harris as victim and Dean as loose cannon.

The good news, of course, is that it probably doesn't matter. Harris really is a lost cause in Florida, and calling her Hitler, Stalin or Milli Vanilli won't be enough to make a meaningful difference in the race. We're not sure we can say the same about ImpeachPAC's foray into Connecticut. Ned Lamont is in an extraordinarily close race with Joe Lieberman. ImpeachPAC has just muddied the waters by launching a pro-Lamont TV ad that blames Lieberman for not stopping "thousands of neo-Nazis and skinhead extremists" from "infiltrating our military."

The ad features photos of Tim McVeigh and men wearing swastika armbands, followed closely by that shot of Lieberman getting a kiss from George W. Bush. That part's a little misleading; the kiss came after Bush's State of the Union address and, so far as we know, had nothing to do with Nazis in the military. The rest of the ad seems accurate enough. The Southern Poverty Law Center has indeed alleged that recruiting woes brought on by the Iraq war have led to an increase in the number of neo-Nazis and extremists in the military, and neither the Bush administration nor the Senate has done much about it.

Is Lieberman really to blame for that? One can make the argument. He supports the war in Iraq, and he has failed, as have most of his colleagues, to demand hearings into the alleged rise in extremists in the military. But of all the things that can be laid at Lieberman's door -- his support for the war and for the confirmations of Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales, his record on reproductive rights, his patronizing lectures, his moralizing on popular culture, his general enabling of George W. Bush -- isn't this one a little random and heavy-handed, especially if any Connecticut residents are starting to wonder about the influence of outsiders on the Senate race?

We don't know what Ned Lamont wanted to have as his campaign focus this weekend, but we're betting it wasn't a pissing match -- it's sure to come -- over whether it was fair to lump Lieberman in with the Nazis. Maybe the ad helps peel away Jewish support from Lieberman, but we're willing to bet that it backfires into the usual round of distractions and apology demands.

Like Dean, ImpeachPAC comes to the table with all the right motives. And like Dean, ImpeachPAC and others who advocate the impeachment of George W. Bush are dismissed too often as moonbats and nutcases. That doesn't mean that they shouldn't speak their minds and make their cases; their arguments are strong, and we're all better off when they make them well. But there's something to be said for taking careful aim when you pull out the big guns, and we'd submit that Dean and ImpeachPAC should have thought twice before opening fire this time.

Update: Several readers have complained that we didn't say exactly what Dean said about Harris. Fair enough. Here it is: "Thank God for Bill Nelson, because we'd have another crook in the United States Senate if it weren't for him. He's going to beat the pants off Katherine Harris, who didn't understand that it is ethically improper to be the chairman of the campaign and count the votes at the same time. This is not Russia. And she is not Stalin. And she will go back to wherever she came from and Bill Nelson will be reelected."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2006 Elections Howard Dean Joe Lieberman War Room