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President Barack Obama? Weak, a socialist and a liar. Liberals? Monsters and a cancer. Former Vice President Dick Cheney? Called a war criminal, “murdering scum” and a draft dodger — by people in his own party.
Just a month after the Arizona shooting rampage led to bipartisan calls for toned-down political discourse, incivility suffused the year’s largest gathering of conservatives. Just like at most partisan get-togethers on either end of the ideological spectrum.
The brief political time out is over — if it ever really existed.
“All right, sit down and shut up,” Cheney said after being greeted by hecklers when he made a surprise appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Supporters shouted down the insults with a “U.S.A.” chant, and a visibly annoyed Cheney brushed off the outbursts.
Such incivility didn’t overwhelm the conference, which is a rite of passage for presidential contenders, right-leaning media personalities and grass-roots activists. But it kept popping up throughout the three-day affair in speeches by names big and not so big.
That’s not to say liberals would have been any more civil at their own event, and the tone at the conservative gathering was arguably no different from what it’s been in the past. After all, it’s what these events are for.
On both the left and the right, hard-core ideologues are the ones who attend such conferences, and agendas are set with that audience in mind. Verbal bomb-throwing is the norm from speakers who serve up political red meat to highly partisan crowds that devour it.
This weekend’s conference was a sign of a return to normalcy in the wake of the shootings that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and killed six in January. That attack touched off a national debate about overheated political rhetoric. Politicians of all stripes, Obama included, pleaded for a more civil discourse.
The GOP’s top elected leaders — House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — set a respectful tone in their speeches to the conservative gathering.
So did many of the Republicans likely to run for president.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who referred to Obama only once, confronted the issue of “the venomous, petty, often ad hominem political discourse of the day.” He urged conservatives to be more thoughtful in their rhetoric.
Yet even as he invoked Ronald Reagan’s admonishment, “Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents,” Daniels slapped at Democrats: “Our opponents are better at nastiness than we will ever be. It comes naturally.” He also told conservatives to embrace a nicer approach — for political gain.
“The public is increasingly disgusted with a steady diet of defamation, and prepared to reward those who refrain from it,” he said. “It would help if they liked us, just a bit.”
Other likely presidential contenders openly denigrated Obama — his policies, his politics, his ability to lead.
Ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum suggested the president lies. “This is someone who doesn’t believe in truth and evil in America,” he said.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said the country has seen Obama “usher in socialism” and she branded his health care law “the crown jewel of socialism.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said that under Obama, “an uncertain world has been made more dangerous by the lack of clear direction from a weak president.”
It wasn’t all personal; some was just business. Yet much of the criticism relied on words and phrases that liberals tend to find offensive and conservatives wield specifically to score political points.
The false rumors about Obama’s heritage surfaced.
“I’m not one who questions the president’s birth certificate and the existence of his birth certificate,” said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “But when you listen to his policies, don’t you at least wonder what planet he’s from?”
Laughter and applause followed that. And after Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador‘s quip that he “was fortunate enough to be an American citizen by birth, and I have the birth certificate to prove it.”
The most pointed attacks came from sharp-tongued commentators, as is usually the case.
Andrew Breitbart, an activist who runs a conservative media company, assailed people from liberal groups such as ACORN, Code Pink and unions. “Hate-filled, racist sheep,” he called them.
“These people I’ve confronted are monsters,” he said.
Pundit Ann Coulter talked about Obama using Democrats’ poor fortunes in November’s congressional elections. “The way things are going, Obama may want to look into becoming the president of Egypt. Nobody would complain about him being a Muslim then,” she said to cheers. Obama was born in Hawaii and is a Christian.
Like previous years, insults dotted Coulter’s speech.
“In honor of the new spirit of civility, I thought I would point out that under mean, divisive George Bush a nuclear sub was named after Jimmy Carter,” she said sarcastically — and then proceed to bash the former Democratic president.
She lumped Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in with “overbearing, out-of-touch despots.”
Asked about her least favorite Democrat, she said: “That’s like asking my least favorite disease. … Cancer.”
In the end, modern politics is predictable — two parties, drawing distinctions, each saying it’s better because the alternative is worse. If this weekend showed anything, it was that the 2012 presidential campaign has begun — no better than usual, but perhaps no worse, either.
Conservatives’ convention site: http://www.conservative.org/cpac
Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press