Obama's reach across divide praiseworthy, but not without precedent|
by Ralph Reed
Georgia Online News Service
Barack Obama's inaugural address Jan. 20 was notable – apart from the usual eloquence and Obamaesque stagecraft – for a clarion call for a new, post-partisan politics. He challenged the nation to embrace a kind of 21st century version of the Era of Good Feelings, which prevailed between 1817 and 1825 after the decline of the Federalist party but prior to the sectional disputes that later arose over the extension of slavery.
Obama wants to change our political culture, encouraging both sides to acknowledge differences without being disagreeable. Even for those who opposed Obama, this is a noble goal. But we've been here before.
Bipartisan bromides have been a standard staple in inaugural addresses. George W. Bush took office pledging to "change the tone." He appeared to be an ideal exemplar of a new kind of politics. As governor of Texas, he was known for being personally engaging and solicitous of Democrats such as Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. He eschewed name-calling and derided cable screamfests as "Crossfire Jr.," self-parodying send-ups of the now-canceled CNN program.
Early in his presidency, Bush invited members of the Kennedy family to the White House for a private viewing of "Thirteen Days," a film about JFK during the Cuban missile crisis. It was a tangible expression of his desire to reach across the aisle. But after Iraq and Katrina (and three successive GOP triumphs at the polls), relations with Democrats soured. Harry Reid called him "a loser," and some Democrats advocated his impeachment. In exit interviews, Bush has expressed wistful regret at his inability to elevate the national conversation.
It seems hard to believe now, but part of Bush's appeal eight years ago lay in national revulsion against the poisonous climate of the Clinton years, which reached its nadir during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and ended in the second impeachment of a sitting president in U.S. history. There was a larger irony to Clinton's personal tragedy, for he had also pledged to usher in a new era, mesmerizing the chattering class with the promise of a "third way" that would transcend the liberal-conservative divide (He overlooked Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh).
Clinton's failure followed on the heels of President George H.W. Bush (41), who declared in his inaugural address that "new winds of bipartisanship were blowing" in the capital. His presidency ended with one of his campaign strategists saying of Democrats, "We're America and they're not."
We've seen the same pattern prevail (happily, to a far lesser extent, in Georgia), with policy differences under the Gold Dome often sublimated to personal disputes. Recriminations and invective have flown across the state Capitol. The press has to bear its responsibility as well.
Given this backdrop, perhaps the best way to view Obama's promise of a new civic discourse is as a collective cry for help by the political class. Think of it as a desperate plea: "Stop us before we kill again."
In truth, our democracy is far healthier than the rhetoric of our combatants. It has always been so. Newspapers allied with Thomas Jefferson railed against John Adams, calling him a "repulsive pedant," a "gross hypocrite," with "hideous hermaphroditical character," while Federalist editors denounced Jefferson as a modern-day infidel. Alexander Hamilton, one of the brightest stars of America's founding, died in a duel at the hands of a political foe. Lincoln's opponents said he was "nothing more than a well-meaning baboon" and a "long-armed ape," hardly politically correct aphorisms. Opponents of the New Deal accused former President Franklin D. Roosevelt of fascistic designs, and former President Ronald Reagan was an "amiable dunce" who would divide ''black from white, Jew from Gentile, North from South, rural from urban.'' Overheated and intemperate campaign rhetoric is as old as America itself.
Still, it is hard not to conclude that something has changed, something unsettling, something that undermines the future of our democracy. There is a meanness and nastiness to our civic life today that is persuading a generation of Americans to forsake public service. The Rev. Rick Warren, who recently earned a few scars for agreeing to pray (now there's a crime!) at the inaugural, recently posted a video on his church's Web site in which he singled out for blame the mainstream media, talk radio, and bloggers, who he said needed to "get a life."
Warren is on to something. The dinosaurs of the old media (newspapers plagued by declining readership and advertising revenue) sell newspapers by generating heat, not shining light. As for bloggers, especially on ideological Web sites such as the Daily Kos, the rhetoric is beyond snarky. It's a transparent way to get attention and draw readers on a crowded and chaotic Internet. Usually the latest flap on YouTube or the blogosphere is controversy for controversy's sake.
How did we get here – and, more important, how do we get out? As for the first question, there were two turning points: the confirmation of Robert Bork in 1987 and the Florida recount in 2000. Bork's confirmation hearings turned Capitol Hill into a free-fire zone, and changed the confirmation process for judges and Cabinet officials into a never-ending series of search and destroy missions. No one seems to know how to turn it off. As for the Florida recount, while three separate recounts conducted by respected media organizations concluded that Bush won the election, the intensity and closeness of that fight made it almost impossible for Bush to ride into Washington as the "uniter, not the divider," as he clearly hoped to do.
Obama, who won a clear and overwhelming victory in both the popular vote and electoral college, may have an easier time.
If we are to repair the damage to the delicate fabric of our democracy, here are two gingerly offered suggestions. First, those involved in politics should get to know the other side, both socially and professionally. Develop at least one genuine friendship with someone on the other team. I have gotten to know a lot of Democrats over the last two decades and found that it tempers policy differences and engenders real understanding.
When one learns that political opponents are often decent people with spouses, children, strong families, faith, and integrity, it changes our perspective. I recall meeting Chelsea Clinton at a conference of European big shots some years ago, where I appeared on a panel and she accompanied her father. At the time, she was living in London. I found her to be a remarkably gracious, charming and poised woman. Expressing empathy for anyone whose children watch their parents being attacked politically, she gave my wife and I her phone number, and said she would be happy to talk to any of our children if they ever wanted to talk. Alas, we never took her up on that offer. But as I watched her sitting behind her mother at confirmation hearings as Secretary of State this week, I remembered that gesture of kindness. Such personal bonds are a reminder of our shared humanity.
Second, take a deep breath. Our differences are real and passionately expressed. That is part of the freedom we enjoy to express ourselves, which for Americans is like breathing. But America is not Somalia. For all our differing opinions and philosophies, for all the noise and conflict that is inherent in a healthy democracy, we are all still Americans, and there is much that we hold in common.
Our civic life need not resemble an episode of "The Three Stooges." We can do better. We have a duty to do so, given the birthright to freedom that is ours. Let's not abuse it. Then we won't have to say what the Duke of Devonshire does in the film "The Duchess," in which, in a delightful scene, the Duke castigates blowhard Whig politicians: "I agree with their politics. It's the rhetoric I can't stand."
Ralph Reed is CEO of Century Strategies, LLC, and a Republican strategist. [full bio]