Editorial writer and columnist

If liberals believe anything, it is that the right is either solely, or mostly, responsible for the degradation of political discourse in America. And they are surely correct to condemn such ugly rhetorical excesses as the Obama-is-Hitler placards that flowered across the land in the summer of 2009. 

But liberals are in deep, deep denial about their own incivility issues. Consider the “terrorism” analogy now being aimed at the Tea Party by Democratic members of Congress — in the acquiescent presence of the vice president, no less — and by some journalists who sympathize with the Democrats. To pick just one example of the genre, today’s New York Times carries Joe Nocera’s column, “Tea Party’s War Against America.”

According to Nocera, President Obama’s debt-ceiling deal with the Republicans violated a basic rule: “Never negotiate with terrorists. It only encourages them.” He adds: “Much of the country has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people.” These “intransigent” spending cutters were indifferent to “blowing up the country” in pursuit of their goals. They are indifferent to “inflicting more pain on their countrymen” via “the terrible toll $2.4 trillion in cuts will take on the poor and the middle class” and the extra unemployment it will bring. 

I’m puzzled. The Times editorial board only recently condemned “many on the right” for “exploit[ing] the arguments of division,” and “demonizing immigrants, or welfare recipients, or bureaucrats.” Right-wingers, The Times notes, “seem to have persuaded many Americans that the government is not just misguided, but the enemy of the people.” 

So how can it be okay for Times columnists to demonize the Tea Party and try to persuade Americans that they are not just misguided, but the enemies of the people? 

I don’t know exactly what the Tea Party is, or which Republicans belong to it. Still, to the extent I can make out a coherent agenda, much of it strikes me as profoundly unwise, especially the near-religious aversion to any tax increases as a means of reducing the debt.

The political strategy, if any, of the ultra-budget-slashers is no less dubious. Certainly those, such as Michelle Bachmann, who vowed to vote against raising the debt limit under almost any circumstances were engaged in irresponsible posturing. I thought John McCain’s “hobbit” line, cribbed from the Wall Street Journal, captured this nicely.

Having said that, terrorism is not defined by ideology or objectives; it is defined by methods. Terrorists are people who commit acts of physical violence, or threaten them, to influence politics. Tea Party members of Congress, by contrast, ran for office, got elected, and are now casting votes in the national legislature according to what they promised and what their constituents want. In the debt-ceiling debate, they played hardball politics in pursuit of their principles, as they see them.

If there’s any violence, or threat of violence there, or any law-breaking at all — much less a “jihad,” I can’t see it.

Nocera’s extended simile crosses the line between colorful journalism and propaganda.

Utterly blind to the irony, Nocera accuses the Tea Party of acting like terrorists even as he encourages President Obama to risk an actual violation of law in opposition to them. In his view, Obama “should have played the 14th Amendment card” because “legal scholars believe that Congress would not have been able to sue to overturn his decision.”

Note that Nocera’s “legal scholars” don’t say that Obama should do this because it’s perfectly constitutional. They say he should do it because he could get away with it. Wisely, the president took the advice of his own legal team, which told him the 14th Amendment route might lead to constitutional crisis. 

Nocera comes closer to a valid point when he argues that the budget cuts imposed under this deal will inflict pain on some who depend on government spending and could create more fiscal drag on an economy struggling to create jobs.

Of course, any serious debt solution is going to be painful for a lot of people, when and if we get around to enacting one.

But I don’t know how Nocera can predict the short-term impact of this legislation confidently enough to support his excoriation of those who disagree with him. Lots of other macroeconomic predictions rooted in economic theory, both Keynesian and monetarist, have not panned out in the last few years. The vast majority of budgetary savings in the bill are projected over the next decade; the precise cuts, too, remain largely undetermined.

What we do know, more or less, is that between now and October 2012, it will reduce federal outlays by $25 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Given federal spending of more than $3.8 trillion, that is a rounding error — not “blowing up the country.”

There are real terrorists out there: Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda, Iran’s rulers. Yet some of the same people who are slapping the “terror” label on the Tea Party and condemning Obama for dealing with them also advocate outreach to Mideast terrorists, if not to negotiate with them, at least to understand of what makes them tick.

Nocera’s colleague Tom Friedman, for example, has excoriated the Tea Party as the “Hezbollah faction” of the Republican party but has also argued that the U.S. must not isolate Mideast radicals if they are “change agents who are seen as legitimate and rooted in their own cultures.”

“They may not be America’s cup of tea,” Friedman instructed. “But we need to know about them, and understand where our interests converge — not just demonize them all.”

Shouldn’t progressives extend the Tea Party that same courtesy, given that they are at least, you know, Americans?

This country has deep economic problems and profound internal divisions. We can’t solve the former if we constantly exacerbate the latter. We have nothing to hate but hate itself.

More from PostOpinions:

Will: Obama cannot run from his liberalism

Coburn: Why I voted against the debt deal

Geithner: Deal a bad process, but a good result

Marcus: The GOP’s carjacking on Capitol Hill

Rubin: Obama loses Jon Stewart