Po­lit­i­cal de­bate get­ting too ugly too soon

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

In the last few weeks the lan­guage of na­tional po­lit­i­cal de­bate has turned too ugly, too soon. The tem­per­a­ture is ris­ing, and I have felt it in the ris­ing of my own po­lit­i­cal blood.

A few weeks ago I wrote a col­umn on Pres­i­dent Obama’s bud­get that I opened with a dis­parag­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the pres­i­dent. The re­sponse was pow­er­ful. I re­ceived five­fold the nor­mal e-mail re­sponses. The col­umn drew vastly more com­ment at var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal Web sites. I was in­vited on na­tional tele­vi­sion and ra­dio to dis­cuss it — where the fo­cus was on my in­tem­per­ate words more than my pol­icy anal­y­sis.

And I am not alone on both sides of the po­lit­i­cal di­vide. In the last fort­night the most-high toned, rarely par­ti­san, Pulitzer prize-winning Brah­mins of Wash­ing­ton print com­men­tary have used the fol­low­ing phrases to de­scribe the pres­i­dent or his words: “dou­ble talker,” “op­por­tunis­tic,” “brazen de­cep­tion,” a “great pre­tender,” prac­tic­ing “de­cep­tion at the core” of his plans, with his words a “fan­tasy.”

On the pres­i­dent’s side, even a high-toned Pulitzer prize win­ner has called the Repub­li­can ar­gu­ments “fraud­u­lent,” and in­tended to “push the U.S. econ- omy over the edge of catas­tro­phe.” A prom­i­nent op­po­nent of the pres­i­dent was iden­ti­fied as hav­ing a his­tory of drug de­pen­dency.

The White House it­self ran a cam­paign to de­mo­nize Rush Lim­baugh. And ac­cord­ing to Politico over the March 14-15 week­end, Pres­i­dent Obama’s tran­si­tion chief is now co­or­di­nat­ing a “left-wing con­spir­acy” that in­tends to per­son­ally go af­ter the pres­i­dent’s crit­ics. Politico quotes one of the par­tic­i­pants: “There’s a co­or­di­na­tion in terms of ex­pos­ing the peo­ple who are try­ing to come out against re­form — they’ve all got back­grounds and his­to­ries and pasts, and it’s not tak­ing long to un­earth that and to un­leash that, be­cause we’re all work­ing to­gether.”

Things have got­ten nasty fast even on the same sides. Con­ser­va­tives have had two very vi­tu­per­a­tive in­tra­mu­ral fights over Rush Lim­baugh and over Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee Chair­man Michael Steele. While on the lib­eral side, Jon Ste­wart has been per­son­ally very rough with fel­low Obama sup­porter Jim Cramer — af­ter Mr. Cramer sharply crit­i­cized the pres­i­dent’s eco­nomic pol­icy.

And in the me­dia, Newsweek had a full cover pic­ture of Rush Lim­baugh with what looks like black tape across his mouth with the word “enough!” on it. For a sto­ried jour­nal­is­tic en­ter­prise such as Newsweek to sug­gest the forcible si­lenc­ing of dis­sent should be con­sid­ered shock­ing to all jour­nal­ists and oth­ers who cham­pion the First Amend­ment right of free speech. And we are less than two months into Pres­i­dent Obama’s term.

In my 30 years as a Wash­ing­ton player, I have never seen the tone de­te­ri­o­rate on both sides so fast. In the sum­mer of 1993, Newt Gin­grich was still work­ing co­op­er­a­tively with Pres­i­dent Clin­ton on pass­ing the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment. While there were pe­ri­odic out­bursts, it took a cou­ple of years for things to get re­ally ugly back then. Even Ge­orge Bush, who came to of­fice viewed by some of his crit­ics as an il­le­git­i­mate pres­i­dent be­cause of the way he got into the White House, was able to work in part­ner­ship with no less than Ted Kennedy on edu- cation re­form dur­ing his first year in of­fice.

The old joke — that de­bates in aca­demic lounges are so nasty be­cause so lit­tle is at risk — does not, I think, ap­ply to na­tional pol­i­tics right now. Rather, pre­cisely be­cause we stand on the edge of pos­si­ble eco­nomic catas­tro­phe in a world that seems more out of con­trol than any time since 1939, both sides feel more deeply about pol­icy de­ci­sions soon to be made.

We earnestly be­lieve — on both sides — that de­ci­sions made in Wash­ing­ton in the next sev­eral months or few years may dras­ti­cally re­shape the very na­ture of our coun­try for­ever. So pol­icy ar­gu­ment eas­ily slips into per­sonal calumny in a des­per­ate ef­fort to win the de­bate.

But pre­cisely be­cause th­ese fate­ful pol­icy de­ci­sions may well be de­cided by a few votes in the Se­nate — leav­ing al­most half the coun­try ap­palled at the de­ci­sion — it is vi­tal to dial back the rhetoric of the de­bate to make more man­age­able ac­cep­tance of such de­ci­sions. At least I am go­ing to try to dial back my rhetoric.

Don’t con­strue the fore­go­ing as an ode to goo-goo bi­par­ti­san­ship. I stand with Mag­gie Thatcher in be­liev­ing in con­vic­tion pol­i­tics — where in­di­vid­u­als and par­ties do not com­pro­mise their first prin­ci­ples in or­der to get along. It is bet­ter to lose a vote or an elec­tion on prin­ci­ple and let the pub­lic judge whose pol­icy was the wiser, than to stand for noth­ing — and thus stand for any­thing.

But with gun, am­mu­ni­tion and gold sales way up th­ese last few months, the Amer­i­can pub­lic ob­vi­ously is brac­ing for some very rough times in some very prac­ti­cal ways.

And, as we Amer­i­cans will be in the same boat as we en­ter what may be a piti­less storm, we owe it to our­selves to be as united as pos­si­ble. We will need to bail out wa­ter to­gether — not bash each other over the head with the bail­ing pails.

Here is the deal. Fight ve­he­mently on all sides over the fate­ful pol­icy dis­putes. But for the op­po­si­tion: Be re­spect­ful of the of­fice of pres­i­dent and its cur­rent oc­cu­pant and his sup­port­ers. And for the pres­i­dent’s side: Re­spect dis­sent — don’t try to chill its ex­er­cise ei­ther di­rectly or by dis­parag­ing the char­ac­ter or mo­tives of the op­po­si­tion.

Tony Blank­ley is the au­thor of “Amer­i­can Grit: What It Will Take To Sur­vive and Win in the 21st Cen­tury” and vice pres­i­dent of the Edel­man pub­lic-re­la­tions firm in Wash­ing­ton.

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