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
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