The day before Barack Obama‘s inauguration as president, “Purple Nation” columnist Lanny Davis pleaded on this page for a return to civility in our nation’s politics.
Mr. Davis, a proudly self-professed liberal Democrat, announced his co-founding of what he is calling the Civility Project in a bid “to change the polarizing, attack-oriented political culture that has become all too common in recent years and, instead, to bring civility back as the staple of American politics and life.”
Sorry, Lanny, as worthy as your aims may be, that horse fled the barn long ago. And it was your side that battered down the barn door.
Beginning shortly after President Bush assumed office in January 2001 and running through his departure from the White House eight years later, Democrats directed nonstop invective at Mr. Bush, and his call for a “new tone” in Washington went unheeded on the left. From “selected, not elected” to then-Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri calling Mr. Bush “a miserable failure” in September 2003 to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid calling him a “loser” during a civics discussion with a group of teenagers at a high school in May 2005 to Howard Dean’s many rants to the MoveOn crowd likening him to Adolf Hitler, the political incivility of “recent years” Mr. Davis decries has originated almost entirely on his side of the political aisle.
For the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee now to feign outrage (for fundraising purposes) at radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh’s saying “I hope he fails,” referring to President Obama’s socialist economic agenda, takes some serious chutzpah - even for the DCCC.
And, no, the Republican criticism of President Clinton was nowhere near as savage, nor as unceasing as what Mr. Bush endured.
Right up until the very hour Mr. Bush left office, the hatred never let up: When he shared the inaugural platform with Mr. Obama on Jan. 20, a chorus of “Na, na, na, na/na, na, na, na/hey, hey, hey, goodbye” greeted him from the crowd. The day before, the Code Pink crazies threw shoes at the White House fence, mimicking the actions of the Iraqi so-called “journalist.”
A gentleman to the end of his presidency, one who chose not to cheapen the office by getting down in the gutter with his critics, Mr. Bush never fired back in kind at them, but his failure to do so obviously took its toll on his job-approval ratings. Silence, after all, equals assent.
Even now, with Mr. Bush back in Texas, Rep. John Conyers Jr., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee - egged on by far-left interest groups - is still determined to hold hearings on supposed “crimes” of the Bush administration. (Think Stalinist “show trials” with the “verdicts” predetermined.) These hearings, moreover, appear to have the tacit approval of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - the same Nancy Pelosi who, upon assuming the gavel in January 2007 after the Democrats retook control of Congress, assured her colleagues and the public that she would bring “civility and bipartisanship” back to Congress. Had she really meant it, she should have sent a memo to her caucus.
Though I never saw Mr. Davis engage in the sort of boorish behavior he rightly deplores during any of his TV talking-heads show appearances, neither have I heard him denounce it with anything more than a “tut-tut” or “tsk, tsk” - until now, that is.
Concluding his column on the need for the restoration of political civility, he implored: “As we now inaugurate a new president, may we also inaugurate a new era of civility across this land.”
While I suppose the name-calling has to stop somewhere, if indeed it is ever to stop, pardon me if I find his timing - coincident with the arrival of a liberal Democrat in the White House, someone of a like mind - more than a bit suspicious. Where was the Civility Project two, four or even six years ago?
Put another way, what Mr. Davis is suggesting is going to be as difficult as trying to squeeze toothpaste back into the tube. Republicans’ memories are rightly too raw to simply let bygones be bygones.
Having said that, though, I’m not suggesting that the Republicans in Congress and the GOP base attack Mr. Obama in similar ad hominem fashion at every turn, for slights real or imagined, and over every policy difference - of which there will be many, given the president’s intention to steer the ship of state to the left as far and as fast as possible.
But neither should they shy away from criticizing the president when it’s warranted, least of all for fear of being branded “racist,” no matter how valid the criticism of his policies. And who better to call them on baseless accusations of “racism” than the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael S. Steele, the party’s first black chairman?
It’s also long past time that Republicans change the terms of the political debate, by rejecting liberals’ euphemisms, such as “investments” (aka taxing and spending), and by returning fire when they’re called “extremists.” In most cases, especially on the social issues, it’s the Democrats who are way out of the mainstream. In other words, Republicans have to stop bringing a knife to a gunfight.
Republican lawmakers also need to remind Mr. Obama that he has no mandate for his far-left agenda, having won with just 52.7 percent of the vote, despite having raised and spent $750 million in his campaign (more than $1 billion, if you add in organized labor’s and liberal 527s’ efforts on his behalf), in the process outspending his hapless opponent 3 to 1.
Republicans can do this, however, without resorting to the “politics of personal destruction” of the kind Mr. Davis (selectively) decries. In a follow-up column Monday, he chastised House Republicans for voting unanimously against the president’s $819 billion pork-laden “economic-stimulus” bill. It’s as though bipartisanship is defined as Republicans caving to Democrats’ demands, even when they’re antithetical to their own views. Republican senators should follow the lead of their House counterparts. Voting for the bill would only provide Mr. Obama, Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid with the political cover they will need when the stimulus package - rightly dubbed “the porkulus bill” by Mr. Limbaugh - fails to help the economy.
Unless they want to remain in the political wilderness for another 40 years, as they were prior to 1994, congressional Republicans need to reject “me-too”-ism and pale pastels that blur the differences between the parties in favor of bold colors, and be a choice, not an echo, for voters in 2010 and beyond.
• Peter J. Parisi is an editor at The Washington Times. E-mail Peter J. Parisi.