Judging from their rush last week to condemn Senator Robert Byrd, Republicans are either recovering from a collective case of laryngitis or suffering from mass amnesia.
Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, recently infuriated Republicans by comparing their plan to ban the filibustering of judicial nominees to the tactics used by Adolf Hitler to consolidate power in the early 1930s.
“Hitler never abandoned the cloak of legality; he recognized the enormous psychological value of having the law on his side,” Byrd declared in a March 1 speech on the Senate floor. “Instead, he turned the law inside out and made illegality legal. And that is what the [proposed filibuster ban] seeks to do.”
Byrd’s Nazi analogy was objectionable on several levels. But more offensive, perhaps, was the sanctimonious and frenzied response of GOP officials and activists who have ignored or downplayed even more egregious Nazi comparisons emanating from their own ranks.
As noted by the blog Wonkette.com, a slew of prominent Republican lawmakers have employed Nazi comparisons in recent years to bash a variety of Democratic positions, including support for tax hikes, abortion rights and stem-cell research.
These attacks failed to draw condemnations from the GOP officials lately leading the charge against Byrd, including Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, chief deputy majority whip and the House’s only Jewish Republican; Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the Senate’s third-ranking Republican.
Cantor issued a statement declaring that Byrd “should be ashamed to invoke the name of Adolf Hitler in his partisan attacks.” The Virginia Republican accused Byrd of trivializing the Holocaust and of committing “a terrible offense to the American people and our way of life.”
Mehlman and Santorum displayed similar levels of outrage, a stark contrast with their past silence in the face of Republicans directly tagging Democrats as Nazis.
The most glaring example of GOP exploitation of the Nazi issue appears to have come from the Republican Jewish Coalition. The organization’s executive director, Matt Brooks, issued a statement picked up by many media outlets in which he not only slammed the senator, but also called on “the National Jewish Democratic Council to publicly condemn Senator Byrd’s remarks.”
“To be consistent with their previous statements against the use of Holocaust references in partisan policy debates,” Brooks stated, “the NJDC should now condemn these outrageous comments by one of their own.”
In fact, the NJDC’s executive director, Ira Forman, did criticize Byrd, telling the Forward that the senator’s remarks were “unfortunate” and “not useful for his larger argument.” On several other occasions, Forman’s organization has rebuked prominent Democrats for comments perceived as anti-Israel or insensitive to the Jewish community.
In reality, it is the Republican Jewish Coalition that avoids rebuking members of its own party. Democratic strategist Bob Beckel raised this point last week while debating Brooks on the Fox News program “The Big Story With John Gibson.” Beckel criticized Brooks directly, saying that his group failed to take on Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma last year after Cole told reporters that voting against President Bush would be like voting for Hitler. Beckel also accused Brooks of failing to criticize anti-tax activist and White House confidant Grover Norquist after he repeatedly compared liberals to Nazis.
“We said it was wrong,” Brooks said.
“I don’t believe you,” Beckel responded.
Brooks, who was traveling this week, did not return a message requesting comment. A search of his organization’s Web site and major news databases failed to turn up one instance of Brooks condemning Cole or Norquist, or, for that matter, directly criticizing any Republican for crying Nazi.
Of course, no degree of Republican hypocrisy should let Byrd off the hook for essentially comparing the Senate Republicans, and their effort to limit the use of the filibuster, with Nazi officials and their early, violence-laced efforts to consolidate power. And for a senator who famously prides himself as a student of history and has spent decades apologizing for his former membership in the Ku Klux Klan, Byrd seems a bit too eager to hold up the filibuster — used in earlier eras to block anti-lynching legislation and other civil-rights measures — as the bulwark of American freedom.
But at least Byrd’s problematic comparison deals with events that occurred more than a half-century ago, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
His critics can’t seem to remember what Republicans did last year.