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Clarence Page: GOP should give shame a chance

Former President Clinton sees parallels between today's harsh conservative rhetoric and the toxic politics that led up to the Oklahoma City bombing. Conservative commentators responded, alas, with more harsh rhetoric. That reaction reveals a problem in today's conservative movement: Harsh rhetoric seems to be all that it has.

I know from experience that the conservative movement has more than angry words in its arsenal but isn't letting much of it show. Too many thoughtful conservative voices that produced an abundance of ideas in President Reagan's 1980s are allowing themselves to be drowned out by today's version of what Teddy Roosevelt appropriately called "the lunatic fringe."

Ample examples are offered by the right-wing punditocracy's reaction to Clinton's thoughts on the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. In a speech at the Center for American Progress and in a New York Times commentary, Clinton restated what he said as president after the bombing. We need to speak out, he said, and "assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged."

Conservatives took this as a thinly veiled attack at conservative bloggers, talk-show hosts and the tea party movement. If the shoe fits wear it, I say. If not, condemn those who are making your movement look bad. People are judged by the company with whom they keep marching.

Nevertheless, some conservatives played Can-You-Top-This in irrational reactions. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., told a Chicago crowd on Saturday that because she called the Obama administration a "gangster government," Clinton wanted to "take her out." She was not talking about a date. She apparently was talking about a gangster-style hit.

Not to be outdone in the nut bowl, Rush Limbaugh declared in full fulmination on his radio show that Clinton's remarks "set the stage for violence" because he "gave the kooks in this country an excuse." As if they needed one.

Fox News host Sean Hannity, interviewing Bachmann on his program, said "there seems to be a coordinated effort to intimidate, silence and demonize any critic of this administration, this House of Representatives, this leadership." If so, the effort has not been very effective. Bachmann can be seen almost nightly on somebody's talk show, either speaking or being ridiculed. Quotability takes you a long way, if you don't mind embarrassing yourself.

The right's overreaction to Clinton's remarks reminds me of left-wing conniptions after the Sept. 11 attacks when President Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, cautioned Americans to "watch what they say, watch what they do." In fact, Fleischer was calling not for censorship but civility in the wake of reported derogatory remarks by various speakers regarding Arabs, Muslims and American troops.

Ironically, Fleischer's critics were accused of irrational paranoia by some of the same people who exhibit the same irrationality about Clinton's remarks today. The former president was not calling for censorship. I think he was calling for employment by all fair-minded people of old-fashioned conservative virtues like shame and ostracism.

Edmund Burke, the philosophical father of modern conservatism, would approve. More important than government in an orderly society, Burke argued, were the "little platoons" of family, voluntary associations and other institutions of civil society. Government thought police are unnecessary when the people set their own standards of acceptable behavior and shame or shun violators.

"Whilst shame keeps its watch," wrote Burke, "virtue is not wholly extinguished in the heart; nor will moderation be utterly exiled from the minds of tyrants."

Considering how often Bush was called illegitimate after the Florida debacle in 2000, conservatives have a point when they say the left often is guilty of excesses, too. But "we're not as bad as them" is a pretty low bar to jump over.

It's not easy to criticize your allies, even when their excesses embarrass you by association. The left certainly found that out in the 1960s, when legitimate civil rights and anti-war protests led to violence by some hotheaded extremists. It took years for the Democrats to recover from the divisions that fractured their party. Today's Republican leadership is in a similar situation, happy to have the tea party energizing the base yet trying to keep extremists at arm's length. It's better to shame them before they shame you.