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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 11:59 pm | Fair 52º

 
 
 
 

Mark Shields: Politics as (Un)usual — Even a Dying Hero Is the Target of Insults

In Marine Corps jargon, a "duty station" is the military base or camp where a Marine is assigned to live. Reflecting our national inclination both to romanticize what is past and to criticize what is current, Marines regularly will gripe that there is no duty station better than the one they just left and none worse than the one they're at presently.

American voters have an almost identical reaction in their feelings toward national political leaders, tending to view those leaders more positively after they have exited center stage than they did when they were in office. For example, George W. Bush, whom voters viewed unfavorably by a 2-1 margin in his last year in the White House, reversed his numbers and received a 2-1 favorable rating only 10 years later. Whether because of the deeper perspective time's passage provides to us all or because of their being compared with flawed Oval Office successors, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush also enjoyed dramatic bipartisan surges in their public popularity.

But that mellowing pattern no longer might be operative in our tribal American politics, as we learned in this week's focus group of 12 voters in a Milwaukee suburb, conducted for Emory University by respected Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.

When Hart asked the group for a word or phrase to describe Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee who is gravely ill in his Arizona home, it was not surprising that the answers included positives — "war hero," "patriot," "strong," "very ethical" and "smart" — reflecting the more than three in five Americans, according to impartial surveys, who view McCain favorably.

But committed Donald Trump voters in the group were harsh indeed when it came to McCain. To Betsy Novak, 55, who works in a greenhouse, he is "petty," which was the word also used by Randy Cera, 52, a self-employed insurance agent. To 66-year-old machinist Stephen Romanowski, McCain is a "turncoat," while to shipping and receiving manager Curt Hetzel, 48, McCain is, at 81, "too old."

As Hart, who has conducted hundreds of similar focus groups to find out how voters feel personally about political figures and the issues facing the country, noted afterward, "Partisan America is alive and well in Wisconsin." He added: "If anybody has a doubt about how solid the Trump core is, come listen to this group. They couldn't even find a nice word to say about John McCain."

Where was there agreement in the deeply divided Milwaukee group? On the question of whether President Trump should fire special counsel Robert Mueller. The Trump backers agreed with the Trump critics. In the words of strong Trump supporter Sam Goldner, a 25-year-old warehouse manager, "Politically, it would be a terrible idea." Novak agreed: "People would be suspicious."

This in no way reflected any positive feelings toward Mueller, a decorated combat veteran of Vietnam and lifelong Republican and public servant whom the Trump backers referred to as "desperate," a "liar" and "partisan."

These are the early returns from the crucial battleground state of Wisconsin. America is anything but united; any common ground between the politically warring camps is scarce. Sadly, even an authentic American hero who is almost certainly on his deathbed is not given the benefit of the doubt and instead is the target of political invective from fellow Republicans.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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