Uncivil Wars

The president should be more civil, whatever that means

With Wednesday’s deficit speech and Thursday night’s leaked comments about “sneak”-ing through agendas and Paul Ryan not being “on the level,” the pundits are once again getting themselves tied up over questions of civility. Apparently, it was uncivil of the president to criticize Ryan’s deficit plan so directly in his speech Wednesday, when Ryan was in the room, and equally impolite to kick into campaign mode and rag on Ryan when he—and supposedly the press—was not in the room.

This is all of the same variety of atmospheric nonsense that seems to come up every time something serious is going down in Washington—you will remember the health care debate of 2009 with its “You Lies” and “Hell nos” and whatnots. This time, though, it’s the right who is assuming the outrage position and the left who is calling for more offense. Two interesting and different takes on the question of civility yesterday illustrate those stances.

The first is an editorial for The Washington Examiner, which has echoes of last Thursday’s blistering Journal editorial that described the president’s deficit speech as “toxic.” According to the Examiner editorial, Wednesday’s speech was something like the unmasking of a monster, and we should get used to seeing the real, fangy, oozy Obama—one very different from the highly approved-of genial gentleman we’ve been used to seeing so far—as the 2012 campaign unfolds. Describing the speech (in very uncivil terms) as “the sort of harangue one would expect from a rabidly devoted partisan hack, with no relation whatever to the thoughtful appeals to reason and common values that historically have characterized presidential leadership in this country,” the editorial writers warn:

Odds are we will see more of this meaner side of the Obama persona in the months ahead because, as columnist and former GOP presidential aide Pete Wehner notes, “now that he finds himself intellectually outmatched by Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and in a precarious situation when it comes to his re-election, Obama is dropping his past civility sermons down the memory hole. Decency and respect for others has suddenly become passe. Talking about our disagreements without being disagreeable has been overtaken by events. Not impugning the character of the opposition is fine as long as it’s convenient, but it’s to be ignored whenever necessary.” In other words, we’re now seeing the real Obama in what promises to be an ugly campaign.

Well of course, because Pete Wehner writes that the president is in a “precarious situation” regarding re-election—something which most everyone disagrees with, bar perhaps Peggy Noonan—and because Wehner believes Paul Ryan is Obama’s intellectual superior, then these various strange assertions about bad boy Obama must be true.

Or, perhaps the president was just throwing a bit of red meat to the hungry base and went a step too far by the kinds of presidential standards that partisans impose when it suits their side of an argument.

Speaking of the other side, Paul Krugman has another take on the civility debate in today’s Times. His op-ed’s title: “Let’s Not Be Civil.”

Firstly, Krugman points out that Ryan may have been less than civil himself in the wording of his much-lauded deficit reduction plan. “…it was, in fact, a deeply partisan document,” writes Krugman, “which you might have guessed from the opening sentence: ‘Where the president has failed, House Republicans will lead.’ It hyped the danger of deficits, yet even on its own (not at all credible) accounting, spending cuts were used mainly to pay for tax cuts rather than deficit reduction. The transparent and obvious goal was to use deficit fears to impose a vision of small government and low taxes, especially on the wealthy.”

Krugman then discredits the Heritage Foundation, who he says are the wonks that so heartily approved of the Ryan Plan. It’s a shrewd argument, and a stronger one than “Pete Wehner says…”

But the shrewdest part of Krugman’s piece is his take on how the very terms “civility” and “bipartisan” are defined in the Beltway. Here, Krugman gets a little uncivil in taking on the kind a brand of “civility” that may please a Morning Joe panel but serves mostly the goal of political and policy stagnation. And he’s spot-on.

Sorry to be cynical, but right now “bipartisan” is usually code for assembling some conservative Democrats and ultraconservative Republicans—all of them with close ties to the wealthy, and many who are wealthy themselves—and having them proclaim that low taxes on high incomes and drastic cuts in social insurance are the only possible solution.

And so?

So let’s not be civil. Instead, let’s have a frank discussion of our differences. In particular, if Democrats believe that Republicans are talking cruel nonsense, they should say so—and take their case to the voters.

In other words, Obama should have invited the press pool back into the room for his leaked “sneak” remarks—and asked Paul Ryan in to join them.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , ,