A POPULAR CONCEIT of the left is that political hatred is a sickness of the right, one to which liberals are largely immune. "Just who are these Clinton haters," asked Time magazine in April 1994, "and why do they loathe Bill and Hillary with such passion?" It answered, in effect: That's just the way conservatives are. In its final paragraph, the article quoted historian Alan Brinkley: "Liberals tend to value tolerance highly, so there's a greater reluctance to destroy enemies than among the right."
That was a whopper even in 1994, a year when Republican leader Newt Gingrich was routinely vilified as a McCarthyite and a racist. Ten years later, with a storm of Bush hatred raging among liberal Democrats, the notion that the left is too high-minded to savage its opponents is about as plausible as the claim that the moon landings were staged in Hollywood.
The left's bitter fury toward Bush is more than just atmospherics. It is the big political story of the past two years. The visceral revulsion Bush provokes in so many Democrats fuels the passion that has had such a seismic effect on the presidential campaign. From last winter's Howard Dean bubble to the astonishing sums of money being donated to John Kerry, Bush hatred has profoundly shaped the 2004 election. It explains why Kerry is neck-and-neck in his race with George Bush. It may also be the reason he loses.
In a startling article in The New Republic last year, Jonathan Chait made what he called "The Case for Bush Hatred." He opened with a declaration that until recently would have been unthinkable in a respected journal of opinion: "I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it." Bush's policies, Chait wrote, "rank him among the worst presidents in US history" -- but "I hate him for less substantive reasons, too. . . . I hate the way he walks. . . . I hate the way he talks. . . . And while most people who meet Bush claim to like him, I suspect that if I got to know him personally, I would hate him even more."
Chait went on to make a factual, detailed case for his poor opinion of Bush. But what does "I hate the way he walks . . . I hate the way he talks" mean, if not that the facts and details don't really matter? Bush hatred isn't a considered judgment. It's a distemper; a derangement. To those afflicted with the mania, denouncing the 43d president as an evil moron may seem perfectly reasonable. But normal voters are not likely to find it a persuasive argument. More likely, they will be repelled by it.
Most Americans don't consider themselves haters, and hatred doesn't usually win elections. Clinton was detested by many conservative Republicans, but that didn't stop him from getting re-elected. Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP nominee, was frustrated by his inability to make any headway against an incumbent that he knew many people reviled. "Where's the outrage?" he fumed. What Dole discovered -- what Kerry should remember -- is that political hatred is a minority taste. However intensely it may be savored by true believers, it's a hard sell on Main Street.
The last thing Kerry needs is to be seen as the candidate of the Hate Party. His campaign has reportedly issued orders to keep the Bush-bashing to a minimum during this week's convention, and the official convention speakers will no doubt comply. But what about all the non-official speakers and activists and sign-wavers and souvenir vendors and interview-givers who will be so visible and audible to the thousands of journalists roaming the Fleet Center? How restrained is Michael Moore, the nation's premier Bush-hating demagogue, going to be at the rally he and Howard Dean are headlining on Tuesday, for example? How many celebrities will be unable to suppress the kind of X-rated rant that Whoopi Goldberg uncorked at that now-infamous Kerry gala at Radio City Music Hall? How many delegates will be sporting crude Bush-hating buttons, like the ones that say "Buck Fush" or "Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot"?
When Chait wrote his New Republic article last fall, Bush hatred still had limits. "Mainstream Democrats have avoided delving into Bush's economic ties with the bin Laden family or suggesting that Bush invaded Iraq primarily to benefit Halliburton," he wrote. But that was before "Fahrenheit 9/11," which traffics in precisely such smears. That was before Al Gore likened Bush's communications aides to Nazi "Brown Shirts." That was before MoveOn.org posted two videos on its website depicting Bush as Adolf Hitler.
Clinton-bashing got pretty intense, but rare was the Republican who was proud to call it "hatred." Many Bush-haters, by contrast, embrace the term enthusiastically. Their unabashed loathing may energize and excite them, but they are doing their candidate -- and their country -- no favors. For most Americans, hatred is a political turn-off. Any Democrat who wants John Kerry to be president might do well to keep that in mind.
(Jeff Jacoby is a syndicated columnist for The Boston Globe.)