Civility for thee, but not for me: As election nears, Obama appears to have adopted a “do as I say, not as I do” strategy
By Ken K. Gourdin
Author’s Note: The main body of this entry was posted on the date indicated, and my usual practice is to post updates as additions to the original post. However, I felt that President Obama’s public and published use of an expletive to refer to Governor Romney fit best in the body of the original post, and it was updated accordingly on October 25, 2012.
In the heat of a close presidential campaign, how remote seem the words President Obama uttered in the aftermath of the shootings by Jared Loughner in Tucson of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others. Said he on that occasion, “at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
President Obama continued, “What we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.”
But that was then. In an August 15 Virginia speech, Vice President Joe Biden infamously told a predominantly African American audience that Mitt Romney wanted “to put y’all back in chains.” Lost in that speech is the fact that, while the candidates have vastly different visions for America, he also called President Obama’s and his opponents in the political campaign “decent, honorable men.” I suppose Biden thought he could afford to be complimentary in passing, back when polls appeared to indicate that victory for the Obama-Biden ticket seemed assured over Romney-Ryan. No reasonable person could mistake Vice President Biden’s treatment of Representative Ryan in their recent lone debate as anything approaching civil.
Fast forward two months from Vice President Biden’s “chains” remark. With a strong performance in the first debate between the incumbent and the challenger, Governor Romney looked strong while President Obama seemed . . . distracted, at best. Following the debate, those covering it reported a telling absence of Democratic surrogates in the “Spin Room” as compared to their Republican counterparts, who were more than eager to speak with anyone holding a microphone. In the debate’s aftermath, Obama surrogates seemed desperate to grasp at any straw they could to explain their candidate’s underwhelming performance. Environmental expert Al Gore, for example, blamed the Mile High City’s altitude.
In campaign appearances following the debate debacle, President Obama essentially adopted a “Will the real Romney please stand up?” stance. President Obama intimated that he performed below par in the debate, not because of differences in the merits of the candidates’ respective positions or their differing effectiveness in expressing them, but because the positions espoused in the debate by the allegedly-chameleonic Romney differed from those expressed earlier in the campaign. (If that is true, it should be a simple matter for the campaign to highlight discrepancies on the record—in print or digital media.)
Until recently, President Obama’s surrogates had gone further than the president himself, outright accusing Governor Romney of lying. On October 25, however, President Obama himself told Rolling Stone magazine, kids look at Romney and say, “Well, that’s a bull-$h!tter, I can tell.” So, as long as Obama and Biden were safely ahead, Romney and Ryan were “decent, honorable men” who simply hold differing visions for the country. Now that Obama and Biden apparently are in the race of their political lives, however, Romney and Ryan have morphed into “Liars, Liars, Pants on Fire” (my phrase) and “bull$h!tters” (President Obama’s term). How civil—how presidential.
In order to get reelected, the president apparently will allow anyone to say anything about his opponent. People acting on behalf of the president (and with his approval in at least some cases) who encouraged us to integrate a higher level of civility into our political discourse have accused Governor Romney of tax evasion, of felony SEC violations for allegedly misrepresenting his role at Bain Capital after he took over the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, and of causing the death of a woman whose husband’s employer was taken over by Bain Capital.
Obama campaign official Stephanie Cutter claimed that the campaign had nothing to do with a super-PAC ad featuring Joe Soptic, who blamed Governor Romney for his wife’s death after Soptic lost his health insurance, this repeated airing of a segment in which Cutter thanked Soptic (“Thank you, Joe”) for sharing his story during a campaign conference call. (But the campaign and the super-PAC don’t coordinate! After all, that would be illegal!)
In his 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention accepting the party’s nomination, then-Senator Obama said, “If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.” No doubt President Obama wasn’t thinking, at the time he uttered those words, that four years later, they would prove to be a prophetic description of his own campaign. While he felt no need to resort to such tactics when the polls indicated the democratic ticket was safely ahead, that’s exactly how he’s now portraying Governor Romney in the desperation of a suddenly-tight race.
Continuing the prophecy contained in his 2008 acceptance speech discussing the strategy of candidates who lack records, Obama added, “You make a big election about small things.” One of the examples cited by Governor Romney during the debate of an area in which the federal government ought to be called upon to implement fiscal restraint is the federal subsidy for PBS, public television. While reassuring debate viewers that he likes Sesame Street’s Big Bird and the debate’s moderator, PBS newsman Jim Lehrer, Governor Romney opined that the federal government ought not be subsidizing them.
In Obama campaign ads, Governor Romney’s position against subsidizing PBS has now morphed into Romney wanting to kill Big Bird—as though, despite PBS being such a worthy cause, government funding is the sin qua non of its survival. Wanting to avoid having their character associated with such partisanship, Big Bird’s creators asked the Obama campaign to stop using the character for political purposes.
The campaign is “considering” the request. Translation? “You can go pound sand. The public identifies so strongly with Big Bird that the prospect of losing him is apt to provoke the kind of strong emotional response that will help us—and we can (and will) use all the help we can get (willing or unwilling) in a suddenly-tight campaign.” Governor Romney wants to kill a fictional character—the horrors! Talk about making a big election about small things.
Apparently, all’s fair in love, war, and politics. Civility, be damned.
Update – October 18, 2012: Now comes word that Obama National Campaign Co-Chair and actress Eva Longoria retweeted the following: “I have no idea why any woman/minority can vote for Romney. You have to be stupid to vote for such a racist/misogynistic tw*t.” However, the retweet was, Ms. Longoria told those who don’t have more than two functioning brain cells to rub together (since she surely couldn’t have expected anyone else to believe it) the result of her Twitter account being hijacked. Then came the usual, mealy-mouthed, public-relations-driven, “I’m sorry IF the retweet offended anyone . . .” (emphasis mine).
Ms. Longoria’s role in the campaign reminds me of an election for high school student body office. Ms. Longoria isn’t a key face of the campaign for any substantive contribution she may make to it. She’s a key face of the campaign because she’s one of the “cool kids.” It’s as if President Obama’s campaign slogan ought to be, “You should vote for me, because all of the football players and cheerleaders are going to.” To be fair, however, Ms. Longoria was elegant and effective in parroting the usual Democratic alarmist talking points at the convention about what will happen if the opposing party is allowed to resume power. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UFQPjvwTWk, last accessed today.)
If President Obama and/or anyone calling the shots for his campaign had a backbone composed of something other than an amorphous, gelatinous substance, he would show Ms. Longoria the metaphorical “door.” Perhaps something like this (completely fictional) “tweet” (Hey! How did that show up on my Twitter account! Oh, wait. Never mind.) would do: “While the campaign appreciates Ms. Longoria’s efforts on President Obama’s behalf, her recent so-called ‘retweet’ is not in keeping with the sort of civil political discourse the campaign strives to foster. Thus, while we wish Ms. Longoria the best in her future endeavors, we no longer wish her to be one of the campaign’s major faces.”
Imagine what would have happened if a Romney supporter—any Romney supporter, even a mere member of the rank-and-file, let alone someone who is a key face of the campaign—had done something similar: everyone on the Left would, in unison, be clamoring for that person’s head. And since certain things are actually out of bounds for the Romney Campaign, and since Governor Romney has a backbone which is composed of at least slightly sterner stuff than an amorphous, gelatinous substance, he surely would have obliged.
But President Obama, as we have previously discussed (and of which this episode is further evidence), isn’t interested in civility. However tawdry any particular expression might be, if the president and the campaign perceive benefit from it, they will allow it to stand unrebutted.