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Tim Kaine's GOP cannibal quip: Unfair to the Donners

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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, September 26, 2010

It was a biting remark by the Democratic National Committee chairman.

"You know, the Republicans, I think, merged with the Tea Party, and in many instances they're finding out it's the Donner Party," Tim Kaine told CNN's Candy Crowley last Sunday, "because it's knocking off Republicans left and right."

The chairman may have thought it was a harmless people-eating joke, one that he had already served up to the New York Times and to reporters on a teleconference. But it set my teeth on edge. Comparing Republicans to cannibals is deeply offensive -- to the cannibals.

I claim some standing on the matter, because I'm a Donner. According to family lore, we're related to the Donners who, stranded by snow in the Sierra Nevadas a century and a half ago, resorted to eating their dead.

My amateur genealogical work finds that my great-great-great-grandfather, Jacob Donner, lived near Springfield, Ill., in 1846, when the Donner Party set out from there. He doesn't appear to be the same Jacob Donner who perished in the mountains. Still, the geographic proximity and other similarities (not to mention my prominent canine teeth) suggest the family lore may have some truth.

I have come to embrace cannibal kinship. But being compared to Republicans? This goes too far. Republicans have been doing things to each other that would make a Donner's stomach turn.

It has been estimated that 15 of the 36 members of the Donner Party who died in the mountains were eaten, and that half of the 45 survivors ate human flesh. The enduring fascination with the Donners led to books, movies, tourist attractions, a musical and even a Donner Party cookbook.

But the Donners, unlike the Republicans, waited until their companions were dead before eating them. They took no pleasure in eating each other, and they exhausted all other possibilities -- eating shoelaces, rawhide, boiled animal bones -- before resorting to what one survivor called "the unutterable repugnance" of cannibalism.

Compare that to the way Republicans have been treating their kin lately, tearing them limb from limb and devouring them without so much as a burp of regret. They eat flesh not out of desperation, but out of tribalism; their partisan bloodlust has overpowered them and turned them on each other.

Among the recent victims: Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Murkowski was vice chairman of the Republican caucus in the Senate, a faithful conservative who often was a spokeswoman for the party. But after she lost her primary to a Tea Party candidate and chose to run as a write-in candidate, her Senate colleague Jim DeMint (S.C.) called her a "big-tent hypocrite" who has "put her own personal interests ahead of everything else."

"Principles have never been that important to Murkowski," DeMint told supporters. "She is one of the worst abusers of the pay-to-play earmarks system. And she doesn't support the sanctity of human life."

Also taking a piece out of Murkowski was Sen. John Cornyn, who runs the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He said that Murkowski deserves "consequences" for her behavior, and he then signed on, with a dozen other Senate Republicans, to do a fundraiser for Murkowski's opponent, Joe Miller, on Wednesday.


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