Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search) on Monday decried what he called the "startling meanness" of American politics.
"Demonizing those with whom we disagree politically does not serve the interests of democracy. It does not resolve differences," the South Dakota Democrat said to about 500 people at Kansas State University.
"Today, enormous new challenges confront each and every one of us," he said. "We will not meet those challenges or seize those opportunities if we indulge in the brutal politics of division, if we attempt to silence those who have other ideas."
As examples, Daschle noted that two Democratic senators, South Dakota's Tim Johnson (search) and Georgia's Max Cleland (search), were compared in television ads during the 2002 campaign to Osama bin Laden. Cleland, a decorated veteran who lost three of his limbs in Vietnam, was defeated in his bid for re-election.
"What disappointed many of us wasn't just the outcome of the 2002 elections, it was also the startling meanness in many of the races," Daschle said.
Daschle said the political left is responsible for some attacks, too. He cited a recent ad on the Web site Moveon.org (search) that compared President Bush to Adolf Hitler.
"America has real enemies in the world," he said. "Creating false enemies among us to score political points does not make us safer, it makes us more vulnerable. And trying to bully and intimidate others into silence or compliance does not lead to progress. It leads to increased polarization and eventually paralysis."
Daschle spoke as part of the Landon Lecture series, named for the late Kansas Gov. Alf Landon (search), who was the Republican presidential nominee in 1936.
Taking a question from the audience, Daschle said American soldiers' abuse of Iraqi prisoners has been an "incalculable disaster" raising larger issues than whether Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should resign.
Daschle said the entire American military command bears some responsibility for the abuse. He declined, however, to call for Rumsfeld's resignation, saying that decision must be left to the secretary.
"Something more systemic is going on here and has to be addressed in a far more comprehensive way than simply the resignation of one official," he said.
He warned against using "those junior-ranking soldiers directly responsible for the abuse as scapegoats for a larger problem" and said he believes "99.9 percent" of American troops are serving honorably. He also defended their presence in Iraq.
On another topic, Daschle said he is troubled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's refusal to allow a beef processor to test all of its cattle for mad cow disease.
Creekstone Farms Premium Beef LLC, which has more than 600 employees at a plant in Arkansas City, contends blanket testing would give it access to Japanese markets that were closed to U.S. imports by fears of mad cow disease.