If it was meant to be a joke, it was a bad one, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus could have found a way to back off of it. Instead, he doubled down in a second interview, repeating his comparison of President Obama to Italian cruise ship captain Francesco Schettino, now being accused of manslaughter for allegedly recklessly steering his boat into danger and then abandoning ship while passengers tried desperately to flee.
Priebus's job is to get Obama defeated in the fall, and there's no need for him to apologize for that. He wants a Republican in the Oval Office, and he doesn't need to apologize for that, either. But what possessed him to say the following on CBS's Face the Nation?
We're going to talk about our own little Captain Schettino, which is President Obama, who's abandoning the ship here in the United States and is more interested in campaigning than doing his job as president.
Veteran newsman Bob Schieffer appeared stunned, and gave Priebus a chance to back off the analogy, or at least rephrase it. He didn't—and later, on Fox, Priebus repeated the charge.
Perhaps someone at the RNC thought it was a cute and quotable little comment, one with the added appeal of including a reference to a hated contemporary figure. But it's not funny, and it's not appropriate. Schettino certainly deserves ridicule, and that deed was done quite expertly by the New York Post, which headlined a story about the captain with the words "Chicken of the Sea." But more than being inappropriate (especially to those who lost family members in the disaster), it's ultimately ineffective. Take a criticism from withering to just crazy, and it loses its punch.
Republicans are hardly alone in dialing up the rhetoric to stratospheric heights. Former Rep. Alan Grayson apparently wasn't satisfied with just calling the GOP's approach to healthcare insufficient for needy or very ill Americans, so he went on the House floor and said the Republicans' idea of healthcare was for people to die early, thus costing the system less. And all those comparisons people have made to Hitler are a bit much as well, not to mention insulting to those who lost family members in the Holocaust. Then there's former Gov. Sarah Palin, who recently called criticism of her favored GOP presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich "Stalinesque."
The media is much to blame here, since it rewards people who say provocative things, even when there's little or no substance to the comments. And that has the effect of heightening the vitriol even more, just so people can be heard among the merely mean chatter. It's bad enough when such comments are attached to the screen names of anonymous commenters on the Internet. But we should expect more from public officials.