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Sharing Blame for Partisan Rancor

George F. Will’s latest WaPo column, “Tone-Deafness Among Democrats,” repeats a charge long familiar to Dems engaged in political discourse. Will accuses various Democrats of escalating “shrillness,” “hysteria” and “truculent asperity” in their rhetoric. His specific targets include Cindy Sheehan, along with the usual suspects cited by the GOP, Moveon.org, Howard Dean and Michael Moore.

OK, Will has a point. Democrats in general have on too many occasions been hurt by tone-deaf and excessively harsh rhetoric, which can turn off voters and make a difference in close elections.

Yet there is very little the Republicans can teach the Democrats about civility, and even less Dems can teach the GOP about the art of partisan rancor. Will does cite the long-irrelevant John Birch Society as an example of intemperate attacks by conservatives, as if GOP asperity was a thing of the distant past. But he could also have discussed many more recent examples, such as Bush attacking the patriotism of Democrats who disagree with his Iraq policy, the GOP-encouraged "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth " campaign to slime John Kerry or the non-stop barrage of nasty personal innuendo directed against Hillary Clinton. And talk about rhetorical excess, how about Pat Robertson's urging the assassination of a duly-elected head of state --- and the refusal of GOP leaders to denounce it?

Rare are politicians of any party who refuse to stoop to ad hominem attacks against adversaries, and both parties could do a better job of reducing trash-talking and upgrading debates. Maybe a bipartisan agreement to do so would help. But hanging responsibility for the coarsening of political dialogue on one party while ignoring the transgressions of the other does nothing to solve the problem.