- - Monday, August 1, 2016

The Democratic Party’s current dilemma is a bit like a challenge faced by U.S. diplomats back in 1929. That year, the new Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimpson, cut State Department funding for military intelligence. His reasoning has since become famous: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

But civility quickly surrendered to necessity, and the gentlemanly conduct of foreign affairs didn’t last. Global spying on one’s allies is routine these days; Stimpson seems foolishly naïve.

Democrats find themselves at a Stimpson-like crossroad: They want to take the high road, and they also want to win. At last week’s Democratic convention Michelle Obama urged her party to win without sacrificing its dignity. “When they go low, we go high,” she said. Those are words to live by. We encourage self-restraint in our children when they face provocation by assuring them that “We’re better than that.” We teach them a math of justice, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” These are unquestionably good values, but can they work in politics?

There is no doubt that in the long run we all benefit from living in a society in which character, decency, respect and human dignity prevail.

But will they win in November?

It’s all about voter perception. What did voters take away from the Bloomberg-Trump exchange? Last week, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg – like Mr. Trump, a New York billionaire businessman – spoke about Mr. Trump’s many business failures and how they harmed the folks he employed, his vendors and shareholders. Mr. Trump’s Twitter reply was to call him “little” Michael Bloomberg, since he is 5‘8” inches tall. That was typical Trump strategy – attack and mock the person, avoid the content.

Who won that round, in terms of media coverage and public opinion? I can’t be sure.

How should Democrats counter a Republican convention that chants “lock her up” with a leader who admits, as Mr. Trump did last Thursday at his campaign rally in Iowa, that he wanted to “hit” DNC speakers “so hard their heads would spin.”

When intimidation, name-calling and physical threats are perceived to be signs of strong leadership, what are the Democrats to do … without losing their dignity in the process?

The country needs to be better served when we finally get around to discussing the hard stuff – the issues and problems that face the nation. We need to hear the candidates address Social Security and Medicare, programs that are both lifelines for millions of Americans and strangleholds for the economy. We need to hear both candidates address the national debt. How do their proposed programs and tax cuts fit the concern about the growing debt?

Surely, the Republican Party is better than Donald Trump. We, the voters, deserve much more than politics as a blood sport.

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