In the past 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 Barack Obama’s budget that I opened with a disparaging characterization of the president. The response was powerful. I received fivefold the normal number of 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 past 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, and a "fantasy."
On the president’s side, a high-toned prizewinner called the GOP arguments "fraudulent," saying they intend to push the U.S. economy over "the edge of catastrophe." A prominent opponent of the president’s was identified as having a history of drug dependency.
The White House itself ran a campaign to demonize Rush Limbaugh. And according to Politico, President Obama’s transition chief is coordinating a "left-wing conspiracy" that intends to go after the president’s critics personally. 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. On the liberal side, Jon Stewart has been personally very rough with fellow Obama supporter Jim Cramer — after 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 never have seen the tone deteriorate on both sides so fast. In the summer of 1993, Newt Gingrich still was working cooperatively with President Bill 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 W. 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 education 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 apply, in my opinion, 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 anytime 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 acceptance of such decisions more manageable. 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, in which 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 past few months, the American public obviously is bracing for some very rough times in some very practical ways.
And as we Americans are going to 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 one another over the head with the bailing pails. So at least here in Washington, at the most visible level of national political debate, a better effort at civility should be sustained.
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.