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msnbc.com
updated 9/27/2006 5:38:31 PM ET 2006-09-27T21:38:31

The devil had a hell of a week. Too bad John Milton can’t cover this campaign, which has turned into an epic battle worthy of Paradise Lost.

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The war between the leading families of public life -– the Bushes and the Clintons -– divides and defines us. Who may be the devil and who may be the Lord depends on your political allegiance, but there is no middle ground, it seems, and, as Bob Dylan sang, “you gotta serve Somebody.”

The devil made headlines in New York and Washington. When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez followed President Bush to the UN podium in Manhattan, he said, “The devil came here yesterday ….In this very spot, it smells like sulfur still.” That brought gales of supportive laughter from the General Assembly, and (though they didn’t admit it openly) from Bush’s American political foes.

A few days later, the Rev. Jerry Falwell graced the podium at a capital political conference of evangelical activists. “I certainly hope that Hillary is the candidate,” he told the crowd, assembled by the Family Research Council. “I hope she’s the candidate because nothing will energize my (constituency) like Hillary Clinton. If Lucifer ran, he wouldn’t.”

Falwell later claimed to have spoken “totally tongue-in-cheek,” but he was just catching up rhetorically (if not theologically) with my radio buddy Don Imus, who’s  been calling Hillary “Satan” for years.

What the devil is going on?
The familiar explanations are valid enough, as far as they go: This is the midterm congressional election season. Voter turnout is expected to be low, so the premium is on “getting out the base” -– the parties’ most committed voters, who tend to see issues in stark terms. The long trend towards “negative” ads continues apace. Our political map is a two-toned Red and Blue.

2006 key races

But there are other forces at work. The language of faith is merging with the language of politics. The two have never been separate in American life; the civil rights movement, for example, was fought in the name of God and justice and there were plenty of black activists -– Malcolm X among them -– who spoke of whites as “blue-eyed devils.”

But the migration of “Bible-believing” evangelical Christians to the heart of one party -– the Republican Party -– encourages the kind of heaven-versus-hell rhetoric you hear from preachers such as Falwell.

The GWOT (“Global War on Terrorism”) is another reason. President Bush insists that this is not a religious conflict, but -– to use his word -– that may be naïve. Millions of Americans see it as just that, and it seems that most of the Muslim world does, too.

Who is God and who is the devil? It depends on what your holy text says. Bush declared the existence of an “axis of evil” and dared Democrats to disagree with his premise. Democrats denounced Chavez’s description of the president, but think he has a political point.

The Bush-Clinton helix
In their new book, “The Way to Win,” authors Mark Halperin and John Harris explain how and why the two families have dominated American politics for nearly 20 years, and why they may continue to do so.

They describe two approaches to politics, “Bush Politics” and “Clinton Politics.” The first is about preaching to the choir by sharpening ideological differences; the second seeks to fuzz over those ideological differences. But BOTH types seek to demonize the other side in one way or the other. Both specialize in “war room” attack and counter attack to defend their own turf and discredit their enemies.

Each family has an interest in raising the specter of the other as the devil. So do others in their parties.

In the GOP, for example, some of Sen. John McCain’s friends think his best shot of winning the nomination and the presidency is to convince the GOP grassroots that he is the only candidate who can prevent Hillary from taking over the White House. “We hope Falwell keeps calling her Lucifer,’” said one advisor with a laugh. “That helps us.”

Bill Clinton was working the other side of the street when he went ballistic on Fox television. He and Hillary, he said in not so many words, were the only team capable of stopping the “right wingers” from running the country into the ground. Clinton dropped any pretense of being an above-the-fray, statesmanlike former president.

We live in parallel universes now. They are at war, and we are having a devil of a time choosing between them.

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