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Florida Voices
Up against the politics of ‘nay’
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Quick – no fair Googling this or digging up the details some other way – what does the Violence Against Women Act actually do?

And in the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union speech recently, what did Sen. Marco Rubio actually say? We all know about the Gulp Heard Round the Internet but without re-watching Rubio’s speech on YouTube, try to name two policy points he made.

The reaction to Rubio’s appearance illustrates what’s wrong with Washington. We’ve reached the point that people and policies don’t matter. We don’t need to know the substance of a politician or policy. We react to them instinctively, based mostly on whether they have an R or a D after their names.

That saves a lot of time we might waste otherwise on such things as listening, thinking and calmly discussing ideas. But it’s hard to get anything done when each side knows the utter futility of persuading the other.

A few hours before he gave the GOP response to President Obama’s annual speech, Rubio was among 22 Republican senators who voted against renewing the Violence Against Women Act. Coming off an election in which women overwhelmingly supported Democrats, having a VAWA apostate represent the party on national TV was further proof that the GOP really, really just doesn’t get it.

And never mind that 23 Republicans voted for renewing the act. It’s the “nays” that fit the prevailing image of the GOP as the party of mean old white guys.

Forget the details of pending changes in the VAWA, which really aren’t going to change the lives or fortunes of most Americans. And put aside, momentarily, any niggling little doubts you may harbor about whether there is still anything on God’s green earth that is not a federal case. If discretion is the better part of valor, sometimes it’s best just to vote for the $659 million in grants for training, enforcement and public awareness campaigns – or to take a walk when the roll is called.

The White House and Democratic majority in the Senate set the VAWA trap perfectly, and almost half the Republican caucus skipped happily into it. Oh? You say you have substantive questions about changing a federal statute, senator? Then you must be in favor of wife-beating.

Gross over-simplification is certainly not new, and both parties use it.

There were the debates over national health care, from Harry Truman’s term through last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Democrats said the Republicans wanted people to die in the gutter, so they could give tax breaks to billionaires. Republicans said the Democrats wanted godless socialism – even “death panels” – and to turn your liver over to those fine federal folks who’ve done such a bang-up job with the Post Office.

Or consider the coming debate on guns. If you think we should at least try to keep guns out of the hands of kooks and criminals, you must want law-abiding citizens to be easy prey for criminals. But if you suspect the Second Amendment means pretty much what it says, you’ve obviously been intimidated by the National Rifle Association.

Immigration? If you want to control the borders, you just hate Hispanics. If you concede the utter impossibility (never mind undesirability) of rounding up 11 million people and shipping them south, you must want “amnesty” for lawbreakers.

What the Obama and the Democrats are doing with the Violence Against Women Act is what President George W. Bush and the Republicans did with the Patriot Act and a few other policy decisions (like invading Iraq) made in the name of fighting terror. Oh, you think a picky little detail like the Fourth Amendment means the government can’t run warrant-less wiretaps? You believe the Bill of Rights forbids detention without trial, or doesn’t permit “extraordinary rendition” of terrorism suspects to countries that are not squeamish about being paid to do our torturing?

Well, Congressman, we really admire how you stand up for constitutional principles. And come election time, we’ll go to your district and run advertisements telling everybody that, when the chips were down, you put the interests of terrorists ahead of protecting our troops.

Oh, and what about the Violence Against Women Act? The Senate version, which passed 78-22 last week, offers legal aid and shelter for abuse victims, straight or gay and regardless of immigration status. It strengthens Indian tribal courts in their pursuit of non-Indian offenders, and it bolsters penalties for sex traffickers and protections for victims, among other features. With all this it’s still a political football.

There was a time when grossly distorting the other guy’s record was considered bad form. The Democrats’ infamous “Daisy Spot” of 1964 – equating Barry Goldwater with nuclear war – ran on TV only once and was roundly denounced.

Today, such slander is considered a mild opening gambit. No wonder they can’t get anything done in Washington.

Bill Cotterell is a retired reporter who covered government and politics 44 years for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be contacted at

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