He’s Our Jerk

The new standard for foreign-policy bipartisanship.

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Republicans may wish they had waited a day to start the attack ads they’ve aimed at the foreign-policy credentials of Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders. At a press conference Thursday, she denounced Hugo Chávez for his assault on President Bush Wednesday at the United Nations, in which he referred to Bush as the devil. “It smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of,” he said, as he stood at the U.N. lecturn where Bush spoke the day before. It was hard to tell which was stranger, that the United Nations had let a blogger take control of the podium, or that the delegates who are famously comatose and unresponsive during General Assembly speeches stirred themselves to applaud the diatribe. Some even reportedly giggled, perhaps a first in the building.

Pelosi’s colleague, New York Rep. Charlie Rangel, whom Republicans also plan to attack as a possible chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, called a special press conference to spank Chávez after he delivered similar remarks in Rangel’s Harlem district. “You do not come into my country, my congressional district, and you do not condemn my president,” said the 18-term incumbent and former Army staff sergeant. “If there is any criticism of President Bush, it should be restricted to Americans.”

Since the Cold War, American politicians have roughly hewed to Sen. Arthur Vandenberg’s principle that “politics should stop at the water’s edge.” As the parties have become more partisan and contentious in recent years, that rule has mostly been invoked by members of the president’s party to criticize their opponents for slights both real and imaginary. Now Charlie Rangel has offered a Vandenberg corollary, one most often associated with the rules that define ethnic humor: Catholics can joke about Catholics. Jews can joke about Jews, etc. (Sen. George Allen, however, should still just stay silent). When it comes to criticizing the president on American soil, only U.S. citizens can participate.

Defending the president may be the patriotic thing to do. But it’s also good politics for Democrats as the president’s party gears up for a campaign designed to drive home the idea that giving the minority party control of Congress would be only a slight improvement over installing Chavez himself. Hillary Clinton last week railed against a film that features a staged assassination of President Bush in 2007. “I think it’s despicable,” she said. “I think it’s absolutely outrageous. That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick.” Of course, the former first lady has plenty of personal reasons both past and possibly future to be outraged at films that depict the shooting of a president.

It’s not just the Democrats who are bashing foreign leaders to improve their statesman credentials. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has an impressive résumé, but it’s a little light on the foreign-policy front. So, when former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami spoke at Harvard University on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Romney denounced him and the school. “State taxpayers should not be providing special treatment to an individual who supports violent jihad and the destruction of Israel,” Romney said in a written statement, calling Khatami’s visit a “disgrace.”

The moment of showy bipartisan outrage will probably not last too long. Already implicit in the responses to Chávez is the putdown of a president who needs such defending. (Don’t you dare pick on my pathetic little brother!) The larger strategy Democrats will return to quickly is using Bush’s foreign policy mistakes to win back control of Congress. Chávez left the country Thursday not long after Rangel articulated his new principle. The bipartisanship probably started to evaporate shortly after Chávez’s plane crossed the water’s edge.