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Decay in the art of political insults

With a presidential contest on the rise, so is the heat of the umbrage wars. That's what I call the endless contest to see which political side can express more outrage about what the other side has to say about it.

Tea party leaders, for example, are taking umbrage at Rep. Maxine Waters, a liberal California Democrat, for the way she expressed her umbrage at the hyperconservative tea party movement while addressing the unemployed at a forum in Inglewood, Calif. "I'm not afraid of anybody," she said. "This is a tough game. You can't be intimidated. You can't be frightened. And as far as I'm concerned, the tea party can go straight to hell."

I don't agree with the tea party on much, but here tea party supporters have a point. Waters should lay off the name calling. It only reduces her to the level of her opponents -- like the tea party.

After all, she's talking about a movement whose supporters famously waved signs at its early rallies that compared President Barack Obama to, among other figures, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, the Joker from "Batman" and a jungle witch doctor with a bone through his nose.

Of course, as tea party leaders were quick to point out, snarky left-wingers sometimes depicted President George W. Bush in similar fashion or worse. Like other virtues, civility is easier to praise than to practice. This is particularly true in politics, a field that shares a peculiar etiquette with professional wrestlers: Never be rude, unless you can blame it on somebody else.

So, true to form, a prominent tea party group's leader fired back at Waters' remarks with a blame storm that by now is familiar enough for me to abbreviate it: ABO -- Always Blame Obama.

"We've had Democrats calling American citizens 'terrorists' and 'hostage-takers,' and now an elected Democratic representative says that we can 'go straight to hell,' " the Tea Party Patriots said in a statement. "The president and all leaders of the Democratic Party, who have called for civility in the past, are neglecting to censure their own. The president's silence on these latest violations of civility has been deafening, but not surprising."

Deafening? "As someone who's been called a socialist, not born here, taking away freedoms for providing health care," Obama told heckler Ryan Rhodes, a tea party leader in Iowa last week, "I'm all for lowering the rhetoric."

The president also could have mentioned being called a "jackass" by radio host Rush Limbaugh, while replaying the president's debt ceiling speech earlier in August.

He could have mentioned Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado saying on another radio show that associating with this president was "like touching a tar baby." Lamborn later apologized when he heard some people find "tar baby" offensive.

Robust language always has been a part of politics. Sometimes it can be quite lucrative. Just check out the titles of some Ann Coulter best-sellers: "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right," "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" and "Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism."

I have a suggestion. Let's call on major politicians, pundits and surrogates to drop a dollar coin into a large container every time they unleash a low blow against their opponents. Call it a "jab jar" maybe? At least our leaders could do something useful to close the government's budget deficit instead of just talking about it.