I used to be a campaign “hack.” I mean that in the nicest sense of the word.
I passionately believed in most of the candidates for whom I worked, a few exceptions being early in my political career when I didn’t know better or the situation was more of a “lesser of two evils” choice. I was willing to do just about anything to see my candidates win, because I really did believe that it was a matter of good versus evil. I am no stranger to the kind of scorched-earth campaign tactics that are common practice in high-level campaigns: dropping oppo in the final days of a campaign; burying bad news late on a Friday afternoon; stalking your opponents with a video camera in the hope of capturing them at their worst; pouring over an opponent’s tax returns, vote records, property tax filings looking for a misstep. All of these things have been part of political campaigns for as long as I’ve been around them (which, unfortunately, is a long, long time).
As the years have passed, either I’ve become more mellow and less tolerant of the nastiness, or politics has become meaner and nastier. I think it’s the latter. Politics has become a place where there is no tolerance for common ground, no points for compromise and no acknowledgment of the goodness in a political opponent.
When Barack Obama first announced his candidacy for president, I was skeptical that a majority of voters in this country would elect a black man. When I found out that his middle name was Hussein, I was sure they wouldn’t. I thought that, for many voters, having a middle name that sounded Muslim (especially just a few years after the 9/11 attacks) would be all the excuse they needed not to vote for him.
Cartoons on President Donald Trump
The questions raised about his birth certificate (led by our current president) were unfair and were designed to question his legitimacy. In my view they were a shield for those who just didn’t want to accept a black man as a major party nominee or as the president. It wasn’t OK to acknowledge that he was a decent guy, with a nice family and true American dream story. And when it came to reasons not to vote for him, it wasn’t enough that he was liberal, had views that we as Republicans and conservatives disagreed with and was utterly unprepared for the job. People had to imagine he was some kind of Manchurian candidate, put in place by Muslims from the Middle East in an effort to take America down a path toward Sharia law.
When then-candidate Trump was challenged by Sen. John McCain for using rhetoric that was “firing up the crazies,” Trump responded, not by attacking McCain for being a moderate or for being out of touch with the voters who were looking for Trump’s brand of nationalism, but by attacking his patriotism and even his toughness. He said McCain was “a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured,” suggesting that if he were a real hero he would never have been shot down and attempting to diminish his actions as a prisoner of war. It is simply a fact that McCain’s actions were nothing if not heroic. But if you don’t like his politics, Trump gave you permission to deny that fact.
Today we are seeing it in the debate over gun control in the wake of the Parkland shooting. Over and over again, I hear those who are advocating for gun control saying that those who don’t support gun control “don’t care about kids.” I know that isn’t true because I care deeply about kids, but I haven’t seen a gun control measure that I believe would prevent school shootings, short of rounding up all firearms and confiscating them. And I do believe in the Constitution, which prevents the government from doing that. So the answers are less clear for me than they might seem to others. At the same time, I am appalled by a public official (the lieutenant governor of Georgia) attempting to force a private company (Delta Airlines) to partner with an interest group like the National Rifle Association in exchange for tax benefits, as we saw happen this week.b
I think our public debate – on cable TV, in newsprint, in social media, on the floor of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, in our living rooms and, yes, in our campaigns – would benefit from dialing down the extreme rhetoric and making an honest attempt to look at a different point of view. Here is a guide to get us started:
- “I am pro-life” does not mean “I hate women and want them all to be barefoot and pregnant.” It might mean that you truly believe that an unborn child is a life and has rights that we are obligated, as a civilized society, to protect.
- “I am pro-choice” does not mean “I hate babies.” It might mean that you are truly concerned for women and young girls who are forced into a life that they didn’t plan or choose and that their rights are being infringed for something that isn’t yet a viable life.
- “I believe in gun-control” doesn’t mean “I hate guns, hunters, sportsmen and the Second Amendment.” It might mean that you have real concern for the safety of our communities in a society that has become desensitized to violence, has too many with mental illnesses and that having so many weapons so readily available means that our children and our loved ones are sitting ducks.
- “I believe in the Second Amendment” doesn’t mean “I don’t care about kids and I find school shootings acceptable.” It also doesn’t mean “I’m being bribed by the NRA.” It might actually mean “I believe in the Second Amendment, which says ‘A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.’ People might quibble over what the Second Amendment means, whether it is still appropriate in 2018 and whether it covers all manner of weapons. But that is a debate for a constitutional discussion, not a legislative one, as far as I can tell.
This discussion could happen on virtually every controversial issue we are encountering today: tax cuts, border security, immigration, trade, the list goes on and on. But as long as we are stuck on our own opinions and refuse to entertain any other information, the debates will stand still and so will our country.