No matter who wins the Presidency on November 6, one thing is for certain. We now can be sure that the day will come when a future Presidential campaign runs an ad that concludes, “Don’t vote for him: he’s an asshole!” For that, we will be able to place the blame on, of all people, Barack Obama, and his 2012 campaign. This is the same Barack Obama who promised, the first time he was running for President, to change the tone in Washington; the same President Obama who told a group in 2010…
“But there is a sense that something is different now, that something is broken, that those of us in Washington are not serving the people as well as we should,” Mr. Obama said. “At times, it seems like we are unable to listen to one another, to have at once a serious and civil debate. This erosion of civility in the public square sows division and cynicism among our citizens. It poisons the well of public opinion….Civility is not a sign of weakness.”
Yet his 2012 campaign’s embrace of gutter-level name calling and divisive rhetoric, with the full participation of both the President and the Vice-President, has guaranteed that the tone Obama promised to change will change for the worse, and that the well of public opinion will be more toxic than ever.
It is hard for me to believe, in retrospect, that I saluted both candidates as Ethics Heroes after the first debate, for their consistently respectful, civil and statesmanlike posture toward each other and the audience. The problem was that the media and the President’s team felt that he wasn’t assertive or aggressive enough, and the campaign strategists immediately worked to re-tool what had already been an exclusively negative campaign into one that was petty, vulgar and nasty. Meanwhile, the candidates on the ticket, led by Joe Biden’s rude and condescending performance in the Vice-Presidential debate, threw civility down the well. President Obama’s third debate performance, acclaimed by his media cheering section, was the most disrespectful and insulting display by any candidate in any Presidential debate in history, by several orders of magnitude.
That was just the beginning. The campaign had already dived into the muck by suggesting in one particularly heinous ad that Mitt Romney was responsible for a cancer victim’s death, but soon the President was engaged in playground-style name-calling, mocking his opponent as having “Romnesia”, and calling him a “bullshitter,” though he put the word in the mouth of an anonymous 6-year old girl. An attack ad “approved” by the President concluded with the ancient code for outright bigotry and fear of “the Other”: “He’s not one of us,” It was an explicit version of the dog whistle previously used to remind prejudiced voters that they should vote for the man who was a member the “right” religion, ethnic group or race: “He’s one of us.” The campaign later put a graphic showing Mitt Romney in a dunce cap on the America Forward home page, another new low.
The effects of this conduct, the lowering of standards of public discourse by the very leader who promised to elevate it, is already visible. If leaders set the standards of conduct high, as is their obligation as leaders, the public will try to emulate them. If leaders set the bar low, some will eagerly dive under it. Thus it was wholly predictable, once the President of the United States had introduced vulgarity into presidential campaigns—a proud accomplishment—that the ethics slum-dwellers among his supporters would come out with something like the anti-Romney ad just launched by a nightmare team of Michael Moore and Move-On.Org. It features the vilest language ever used in a campaign video, exemplified by the lines spoken by a supposed 75-year-old senior named “Dorothy” who tells the camera,
“I have four generations of family on this earth and my life has been very blessed. And if the Republicans steal this election, I’m going to track down Mitt Romney and give him the world’s biggest cockpunch. What’s the matter sonny, you never heard that phrase, “cockpunch?” Right in the nutsack!
Should President Obama and the campaign he oversees be blamed for this? Absolutely. His job and his duty, like all leaders, is to set exemplary standards of conduct that his followers—which is all of us, as long as he is President—can observe, accept and emulate. Instead, President Obama apparently accepted the terrible and unethical advice of advisors who felt that stirring up “the base” with increasingly uncivil attacks and un-presidential discourse would help his re-election chances. Even if they were correct (and I am certain they are wrong), the President was ethically bound by his high office to defy their advice. His duty to the nation, its comity and its culture must come before the desire to be re-elected, as most of his predecessors understood. He is, after all, the same President who spoke these words, rightly acclaimed, in the wake of the Tucson shooting. He was talking about the victims, and in particular, the murdered child, Christina-Taylor Green.
“And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud. We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations. They believe — they believe and I believe that we can be better.
“Those who died here, those who saved lives here, they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us. And I believe that, for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.
“That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina-Taylor Green believed. Imagine — can you imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy, just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship, just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.
“I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”
Because he is President of the United States, Barack Obama has the power to persuade the nation to live up to those aspirations he articulated so well, by leading by example, by meeting the challenge posed by his own words. Instead, he chose to betray his words, and his duty, with a foolish embrace of tactics and rhetoric that not only undermine his chances of keeping his high office, but shows him unworthy of it, and coursens American culture as well.
Source: New York Times
Graphic: Human Events