Nothing But Name-Calling

by Nathan L. Gonzales August 12, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

While President Barack Obama is trying to change the tone in Washington, Democrats and Republicans inside the Beltway can’t resist calling each other names and needling one another.

“These town-hall meetings have been orchestrated by the tea baggers and the birthers to just be free-for-alls, make a lot of noise, go on YouTube and show discord,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Tuesday after a meeting at the White House.

In one sentence, the Majority Whip got in two barbs: “tea baggers,” a derogatory sexual term meant to poke fun at the Taxed Enough Already, or TEA, Party rally attendees, and “birthers,” a term manufactured by Democrats to describe people who question the legitimacy of Obama’s natural-born citizenship.

Over the past four years, Democrats successfully used their “culture of corruption” label to brand Republicans, which in turn helped them pick up more than 50 seats in the House and 14 seats in the Senate. And now that they’re in the majority, Democrats have shifted to using “Republican Party of No” as their GOP brand of choice.

But Republicans are not innocent victims in the name-calling game.

Earlier this year, there was a Republican National Committee proposal to label the Democrats as the “Democrat Socialist Party.” Republicans dropped that idea but continue to drop the end of the Democratic Party’s official name.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele referred to the “ wing of the Democrat Party” in an early July fundraising e-mail. But that’s just one example of consistent use of “Democrat Party” by the GOP campaign committees and other Republicans.

The precise origin of “Democrat Party” is unclear, but according to a 2007 New Yorker article by Hendrik Hertzberg, the term was used by Harold Stassen, a former Minnesota governor, in his 1940 Republican National Convention keynote speech because he felt the tactics of the Democratic machines were undemocratic. Subsequently, “Democrat Party” has been used by a bevy of Republicans from Bob Dole in the 1976 vice presidential debate and former President George W. Bush to Rush Limbaugh and the GOP leadership today.

“The very usage of that word is intended as an insult, and it’s received as such,” said Markos Moulitsas, publisher of the liberal blog Daily Kos. “As long as people know that Republicans have little more to offer than childish schoolyard taunts, their standing with the public won’t improve.”

For some Republicans, the usage is intentional; for others, it’s ingrained. “I know it drives them insane,” one Republican strategist said.

To Democrats, it’s more than a grammatical slip; it’s an epithet or a slur.

After Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) invoked the “Democrat Party” during a Budget Committee hearing in March, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) took offense. “I’d like to begin by saying to my colleague from Texas that there isn’t a single member on this side of the aisle that belongs to the ‘Democrat Party.’ We belong to the Democratic Party. So the party you were referring to doesn’t even exist. And I would just appreciate the courtesy when you’re referring to our party, if you’re referring to the Democratic Party, to refer to it as such.”

But not all Democrats are quite as jumpy about the term, particularly those outside the Beltway or the blogosphere.

Just two hours from Kaptur’s Ohio district lies Huntington, Ind., where the sign outside the Democrats’ base of operation reads: “Huntington County Democrat Headquarters.”

According to local Democrats, the sign has been around since the 1980s, when the party moved into the old antique shop after being scattered about multiple locations in town.

“It’s never come up here,” Huntington County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Long said about the sign. “I’ve never heard of anyone being sensitive about it.”

Huntington is far from a Democratic bastion; in fact, it’s the hometown of Vice President Dan Quayle.

The party headquarters is just blocks away from the Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center and across the street from the Huntington Herald-Press, the newspaper formerly owned by the Quayle family where Dan Quayle had a second-floor apartment early in his political career.

Last year, an Obama campaign representative in charge of a handful of surrounding counties set up in the Huntington headquarters, bringing in additional phones and computers.

“We’d never seen anything like it before,” said longtime local party activist Wanda Wolf, one-time vice chairwoman and treasurer of the party who also served terms as county recorder and auditor. Wolf couldn’t remember as much party excitement since then-Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) visited the region during his presidential run.

In the end, Obama received only 36 percent in the county, but it was a marked improvement from Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 25 percent four years earlier. Maybe with a different sign, the contest would have been closer.

“If a local party did that today, I’d call them stupid or clueless, but not malicious. And the GOP usage, as a schoolyard taunt, is malicious,” Moulitsas said. “The context is important. If you use it intending an insult, then it’s an insult.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Brian Walsh said: “There is nothing malicious about it. However, if it bothers them and party operatives want to waste time complaining about it instead of working, all the better.”