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Racist? Immoral? The shutdown fight becomes a rhetorical war

What happens when the government shuts down?

The world won't end if Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill. That's the truth about a government "shutdown": the government doesn't shut down.
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The world won't end if Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill. That's the truth about a government "shutdown": the government doesn't shut down.

Sen. Lindsey Graham went on national television Sunday morning and declared that there would be no deal to end the partial government shutdown until top Democrats stopped calling Republicans “racists” for supporting a U.S.-Mexico border wall. ­

But none of the four top congressional Democrats negotiating an end to the shutdown have publicly used that term to describe President Donald Trump or other GOP colleagues.

Graham’s charge was just the latest example of the unusually incendiary rhetoric members of both parties are deploying around a highly sensitive issue as the shutdown continues into its third week.

While rhetoric during shutdowns and negotiations over broad policy disagreements is traditionally heated, it’s now taking on a particularly ugly tone.

Five different times on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday, Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Democratic negotiators were using “rhetoric that those who want to build the wall are racists” and said there would only be a compromise “when we find somebody that’s not crazy to deal with.”

“Unfortunately, Senator Graham did not offer any examples or illustrations to bolster his claim, leaving much to be desired regarding such a charged accusation,” said Donathan Brown, a communications studies professor at Ithaca College in New York and expert on political rhetoric.

Kevin Bishop, Graham’s spokesman, clarified to McClatchy Monday that the senator was referring to Democrats broadly, not to specific individuals. Too many in the party, Graham was saying, have succumbed to the “radical left” faction of the party that wants to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Trump has also accused Democratic leaders of kowtowing to their liberal base as a means of undermining their opposition.

“Anytime you hear a Democrat saying that you can have good Border Security without a Wall, write them off as just another politician following the party line,” he tweeted just before the shutdown began last month.

Meanwhile, Democrats have fired their own stinging verbal ammunition at Republicans.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week called the wall an “immorality.” Graham and other conservatives pounced.

“What we’ve seen over the last few days is she’s very much just completely captive to the far left of her party,” Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, told ABC’s “This Week” Sunday of Pelosi. “What we believe in the Republican side of the House is, what’s immoral is not to secure our borders, not to protect the people of this nation.”

Democrats were asked to explain what Pelosi meant and say whether they agreed.

“That’s a question the speaker will have to answer,” Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, said on Fox News on Sunday when pressed. “But I think what she means by that is, it doesn’t reflect our values as a country, that America has been a place that welcomes refugees and immigrants, people are fleeing violence and war.”

With more provocative rhetoric getting the bulk of tweets and headlines, Cicilline stressed the focus should be on the second half of Pelosi’s statement regarding the wall, where she said it was a “waste of money and opportunity cost to protect the American people.”

Many leading Democrats are taking pains to adhere to this talking point — that they oppose Trump’s wall not because they think it’s a product of racism but because it would waste money and fail to accurately secure the border against illegal immigration.

Still, rank-and-file Democrats are not all staying on message, creating an opening for Graham and others to claim that the other party is resorting to name-calling in the border wall debate.

President Donald Trump reaffirmed his willingness to shutdown the government over funding for the wall along the U.S. - Mexico border that he promised during his campaign.

“For the last two weeks, President Trump has held America hostage to fulfill his demagogic campaign promise to build a ‘border wall’ -- a wall that has come to symbolize extreme and inhumane immigration policies that are tearing our communities apart,” said Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina, in a House floor speech Thursday.

Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a self-described Democratic socialist who Republicans want to paint as part of the next generation of “liberal extremism” in the Democratic Party, said in a “60 Minutes” interview Sunday there was “no question” Trump is a racist. She cited “how he manufactures crises like immigrants seeking legal refuge on our borders.”

Graham on Sunday warned Democrats to watch their words if they want a deal to end the shutdown.

“What (Trump’s) not open to is a lecture by the Speaker of the House,” Graham said, assigning motivation to the president. “He’s not open to the people on the left accusing his Border Patrol agents of being Gestapo agents gassing children. He’s not open to the idea that the wall is immoral.”

Democrats, though, could caution Republicans to take the same advice, pointing to any of Trump’s accusations.

“One thing has now been proven,” Trump tweeted on New Years Day. “The Democrats do not care about Open Borders and all of the crime and drugs that Open Borders bring.”

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.