Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele rebuked top Democratic spokesmen Thursday for personal attacks that go beyond the pale, including suggestions that Senate candidate Sharron Angle wants her political opponents to die and that he is rooting for U.S. defeat in Afghanistan.
He also is getting unexpected help on the latter count from commentators normally aligned with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan this week said, in a reference to old health care debates, that Mrs. Angle wishes death on her opponents.
Mrs. Angle, a Nevada Republican backed by Sarah Palin and a "tea party" favorite, leads her Democratic rival, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in the polls.
During the fight over the health care bill, Mrs. Palin and some other Republicans predicted that the bill would result in "death panels" that would ration resources and decide which ill patients would or would not get expensive lifesaving treatments. Democrats denounced the claims.
"While 'death panels' were nowhere to be found in his health insurance reform bill, it looks like Sarah Palin can find a one-woman version of one in Nevada where Sharron Angle thinks people who criticize her political positions should die," Mr. Sevugan said. "Her sentiments are sick, but that fact that Republicans endorse, as their standard-bearer in Nevada, someone who wishes death upon her critics and calls for 'Second Amendment remedies' to deal with her political opposition is just as disturbing."
In an e-mail to The Washington Times on Thursday, Mr. Steele denounced the attack.
"In politics, tough talk comes with the territory. But there is a line that should not be crossed. Making personal attacks - and claiming any candidate wants their opponents to die - is not just over the line, it denies basic human dignity," Mr. Steele said.
The jagged-edged comments began last week when Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse accused Mr. Steele of acts verging on treason - and supposedly "betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan."
Just before the July Fourth holiday, Mr. Steele created a political furor by telling donors at a Connecticut fundraiser that history shows that a land war in Afghanistan is a fool's errand and calling it President Obama's war.
Last week, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who describes himself as a political liberal, called Mr. Woodhouse's exaggerated rhetoric dangerous.
"I have some empathy for Woodhouse, who must be weary of dealing with the other side's demagoguery day after day," Mr. Dionne wrote in his regular column. "But this is dangerous stuff in a democracy and particularly perilous from a party that, less than two years ago, rightly insisted it could oppose the Bush administration's foreign policy on thoroughly patriotic grounds."
Some Democrats also saw more than a hint of hypocrisy in the Woodhouse attack on Mr. Steele coming after a vote by a majority of House Democrats to require that Mr. Obama present a plan by April to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, long a fierce critic of the Bush administration, called Mr. Woodhouse's statement "truly repellent" and compared the DNC's tactics to those of former chief Bush political strategist Karl Rove and called them "poisonous" and "manipulative."
Mr. Greenwald, whose column on the subject also chastised Mr. Steele for not noting that Afghanistan was invaded under a Republican administration, also called out other liberals for similarly "replicating the worst of the GOP rhetoric."
"Over on the front page of Daily Kos, Barbara Morrill ends her post about Steele's comments this way: 'What the family and friends of those who died or those who are still fighting there today think is, of course, another story.' A couple of months ago, Jonathan Alter and Keith Olbermann both suggested that criticisms of Obama weaken the U.S. and thus help Al Qaeda. Last October, both the DNC and some progressive groups accused Steele respectively of 'siding with the terrorists' and being 'downright unpatriotic' because he questioned whether Obama's Nobel Peace Prize was merited," Mr. Greenwald wrote.
Mr. Woodhouse also suggested that Mr. Steele was being two-faced in giving a cold shoulder to Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine's offer to jointly call for a toning down of the rhetoric and, in language Republicans regarded as a poison pill - to "condemn the violence and threats which Republican supporters have engaged in since the passage of health reform."
The RNC chief fired back on that matter Thursday.
"We rejected the DNCs 'civility statement' precisely because we knew - and we have seen - that Democrats are incapable of living up to their own standards or their word," Mr. Steele said in a written comment to The Times.
In a syndicated column titled "Steele right on Obama and Afghan war," Richard Cohen, another liberal commentator, called Mr. Woodhouse's attack on Mr. Steele "an ugly smear."
Expressing a view shared by non-interventionist Republicans and conservatives, Mr. Cohen wrote that "Steele was right from the start. His truth was the larger one, which is that enough time has elapsed so that the war in Afghanistan can be seen as Barack Obamas."
Mr. Cohen referred Mr. Woodhouse as "exhibit A in what, looking back, will be seen as the overselling of this particular war."
Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog said he understood that "the urge at the DNC to give the RNC a taste of its own medicine is pretty intense, but when DNC messages about a war in 2010 are effectively identical to RNC messages about a war in 2004, there's a problem."
Some conservative leaders who are not normally cheerleaders for Mr. Steele also came to his defense, especially over calls from such prominent Republicans as William Kristol, Liz Cheney and GOProud that Mr. Steele should resign over his Afghan remarks.
"There are many reasons why Michael Steele should not be chairman but Afghanistan is not one of them," former Texas GOP Chairman Tom Pauken told The Times. "Republicans have legitimate reason to question the rationale for the war and whether we have an exit strategy."
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