Call it the Trump effect, the need for politicians — especially Republican politicians — to be as outrageous as possible to gain attention.
Mike Huckabee is the latest entrant in the absurd rhetoric department. Over the past weekend, the former Arkansas governor said the pending Iran nuclear deal “will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” Now, it is never a good idea to invoke the Holocaust, in which six million Jews died, for comparative purposes. It is especially not a good idea to cite the Holocaust when referring to an event that affects Jews. And it is particularly not a good idea to use the imagery of the ovens.
The Anti-Defamation League, which monitors anti-Semitism, immediately pounced. “Whatever one’s views of the nuclear agreement with Iran – and we have been critical of it, noting that there are serious unanswered questions that need to be addressed — comments such as those by Mike Huckabee suggesting the president is leading Israel to another Holocaust are completely out of line and unacceptable,” the ADL’s National Director Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. “To hear Mr. Huckabee invoke the Holocaust when America is Israel’s greatest ally and when Israel is a strong nation capable of defending itself is disheartening.”
President Obama quickly criticized Huckabee and other Republican 2016 presidential candidates for “inflammatory remarks.” Speaking at a news conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the president said, “The particular comments of Mr. Huckabee are just part of a general pattern that would be considered ridiculous, if it wasn’t so sad. We’ve had a sitting senator [Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton] call John Kerry Pontius Pilate. We’ve had a sitting senator, who also happens to be running for president [Ted Cruz of Texas], suggest that I’m the leading state sponsor of terrorism. These are leaders in the Republican Party.”
Obama cited Cruz and Donald Trump by name for cheapening the national political discourse, musing that Huckabee’s remarks may be “just an effort to push Mr. Trump out of the headlines.” The president criticized Trump for claiming that Senator John McCain, his opponent in the 2008 presidential election, was not a war hero. He called Trump’s remarks offensive for challenging “the heroism of Mr. McCain, somebody who endured torture and conducted himself with exemplary patriotism.”
For his part, Huckabee refuses to back down, despite the fact that in an essay in Foreign Affairs in 2008 when he made his first presidential run, he called for aggressive diplomacy to “contain” Iran. “Iran is a nation-state seeking regional clout and playing the game of power politics we understand and can skillfully pursue….” Huckabee wrote seven years ago. “We might be able to live with a contained Iran.… I want to do everything possible to avoid conflict.” But shortly after Obama spoke in Ethiopia, Huckabee accused the president of not taking “Iran’s repeated threats seriously.” In a written statement, Huckabee said, “‘Never again,’ will be the policy of my administration, and I will stand with our ally Israel to prevent the terrorists in Tehran from achieving their own stated goal of another Holocaust.”
Huckabee’s Holocaust comments are outrageous; they are also, as the president suggested, part of a pattern. Hovering in the middle of a crowded field of GOP presidential candidates, Huckabee no doubt senses the need to get his name in the news. Criticizing the Iran nuclear agreement is an easy way to score points among the conservatives Huckabee needs to attract to move up in the polls. Personal attacks on the president are an even better way to gain attention, since among those on the right it is probably impossible to be too outrageous on the subject of Barack Obama.
Expect more of the same in the coming months. The sixteen candidates vying for the Republican nomination will come under increasing pressure to outdo each other to get in the news. The marginal candidates, those scoring only a point or two in the polls, will have nothing to lose by stooping to the gutter. When the current frontrunner — Donald Trump — bases his standing on being outrageous, the incentive to emulate his absurd rhetoric is strong. And the coming debates likely will exacerbate the demeaning of our political discourse. Who knows what the Donald might say as he hogs the microphone on August 6, and what responses his opponents might make?
So cover your ears, there is no sense of decorum in their minds and certainly no filter on their mouths.