Editor’s note: John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast. Previously, he served as Chief Speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.
[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/06/26/wingnuts.schultz.coulter.cnn.getty.art.jpg caption="Ed Schultz (L) and Ann Coulter (R). CNN and Getty Images"]
I call it the ‘split-scream’ – partisans screaming talking points at each other on your television screen. Usually it’s so predictable that you can figure out what they’re saying with the sound off.
But sometimes the epidemic of political infotainment gets so extreme that it veers into cruelty, callousness and the near-justification of violence. That’s what we see in this week’s "Wingnuts" – Anne Coulter on the right and Ed Schultz on the left.
On Monday night, author and conservative commentator Anne Coulter went on Fox News’ "The O’Reilly Factor" to talk more about the killing of abortion doctor George Tiller. A trip to Crazy Town ensued.
When O’Reilly asked why conservative male commentators had been silent about Dr. George Tiller’s murder, as opposed to Coulter and some of her female conservative colleagues, Coulter replied: “I’ve noticed there haven’t been a lot of people talking about it. I’d like to think it’s because they’re hungover from the ‘Hooray George Tiller is dead’ party, but I think that’s not it.”
But Coulter was just getting warmed up. “I don’t really like to think of it as murder,” she said. “It was terminating Tiller in the 203rd trimester.”
After that line, O’Reilly tried to bring Coulter down to earth with a reality check, saying “But you can’t diminish what that killer did or you have anarchy.” Coulter did not take the bait, offering this clarification: “I am personally opposed to shooting abortionists, but I don’t want to impose my moral values on others.”
This, of course, a dry parody of the position that most Americans have on abortion – they are personally opposed to it, but believe that individuals should make up their own mind on this most difficult personal decision. Her final shot of self-justification? “There have been only five abortion doctors killed in 35 years.” Only.
Coulter’s tirade was seen by millions of people and yet provoked little outcry. What’s news is what’s new – and with Coulter, nothing’s shocking anymore. She trades in outrage – that is her game. People expect her shtick, always delivered with a cold Connecticut lockjaw. But whether it’s a conservative con-job or a genuinely unhinged demonization of people who think differently than she does, she has succeeded in making herself into a caricature of a wingnut.
The Mark Sanford scandal was the big political news of the week if you don’t count a democratic uprising in Iran and a trillion dollar health care reform bill. Some folks tried to deal with the human side of the family tragedy amid the inevitable horse race coverage. But MSNBC’s Ed Schultz decided he would just pour fuel on the fire in the cause of pure partisanship.
“I have no mercy here and I’ll tell you why – South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford falls, from grace, I guess you could say, admitting to an extra marital affair,” Schultz said before switching his delivery to a southern accent that was half Foghorn Leghorn and half Colonel Sanders. “Deep in the heart of Dixie where the Bible Belt is the birthplace of the conservative Republican movement and culture we find yet another example of southern hypocrisy.”
For the record, Dixie was the heart of the Democrat’s conservative movement and culture from around 1860 to 1960. And Sanford’s been associated with a more libertarian wing of the Republican Party, with his main focus being fiscal conservatism, not social conservatism. For example, he took the risk of backing McCain over the Bob Jones University-boosted Bush in 2000’s pivotal South Carolina primary – but if it breaks the stereotypical narrative, its best to ignore it in the world of the wingnut.
Ed could have taken a cue from another strong Democratic partisan with a genuine southern accent, James Carville, who expressed compassion for the governor as a man in pain over his human frailty. But Ed Schultz was on a ‘no mercy’ mission.
“I think the people of South Carolina should stand up and call for the resignation of their Governor Mark Sanford,” said Schultz. “Now this is a guy who has fought President Obama on the stimulus package. He’s made it a big issue; they’ve got deficits in South Carolina. He’s hurt a lot of families and I’d go as far to say that this guy can’t even run his own family.”
Okay, aside from the low blow about the family, Schultz seems to be saying that the reason the people of South Carolina should kick Sanford out of office is not because of the adultery, but because he opposed President Obama’s stimulus plan. That’s a serious litmus test – policy opponents should be kicked out of office.
But he ended on a comparatively high-minded note: “As the public, if we allow our public servants to get off just scott free, without personal accountability, then as I say we deserve a lousy government.” It turns out Schultz took the same stand during the Bill Clinton impeachment, so you’ve got to give him points for consistency. But even that highlights the larger point – this was not about partisan politics. Neither party has a monopoly on virtue or vice.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.