Politicians and pundits frequently advocate civility only in the abstract, which is sort of like telling your kids "be nice" without informing them that pulling each others hair counts as a failure to be nice. Our leaders tend not to get into specifics about who is violating the standards of civil debate unless it involves specifically criticizing their opponents. When it comes to civility, they're not inclined to point out their own failures, or the failures of their allies.
Which brings us to President Barack Obama's press conference today (March 6, 2012) in which he commented on the recent episode involving radio pundit Rush Limbaugh and Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke. (Limbaugh called Fluke "slut" and "prostitute".)
Responding to questions from Aamer Madhani and Jessica Yellin, Obama said:
OBAMA: "I don't know what's in Rush Limbaugh's heart, so I'm not going to comment on the sincerity of his apology. What I can comment on is the fact that all decent folks can agree that the remarks that were made don't have any place in the public discourse. … I thought about Malia and Sasha [Obama's daughters] … I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way … we want to send a message to all our young people that being part of a democracy involves argument and disagreements and debate, and we want you to be engaged, and there's a way to do it that doesn't involve you being demeaned and insulted, particularly when you’re a private citizen. …"
YELLIN: "Top Democrats have said that Republicans on a similar issue are engaged in a war on women. … Would you prefer this language be changed?"
OBAMA: "Jessica, as you know, if I start being in the business of arbitrating -- "While it's certainly true that Obama preaches civility, he does not do a very good job of practicing it, and he is not a good example of civility. Rather, he sets the self-serving example of civility that we have far too much of.
YELLIN: "You talk about civility."
OBAMA: "And what I do is I practice it. And so I’m going to try to lead by example in this situation, as opposed to commenting on every single comment that’s made by either politicians or pundits. I would be very busy. I would not have time to do my job. That’s your job, to comment on what's said by politicians and pundits."
I say this on the basis of the following:
First, as several people have already noted, while Obama called Fluke to offer her moral support, he's never called any Republican women -- such as Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN) -- who have been victims of similar name-calling at the hands of liberal commentators such as Bill Maher.
Obama says he doesn't have time to time to "arbitrate" and do the job of the media when it comes to weighing in on specific cases of incivility. Yet he found the time to do precisely that in the Limbaugh-Fluke incident. Why not with others?
When liberal commentator Ed Schultz called conservative radio pundit Laura Ingraham a "right-wing slut", why didn't Obama call Ingraham or use that incident as an occasion to "send a message to all our young people" about democracy and civility?
When union leader James "Jimmy" Hoffa, Jr. made his infamous "son of a bitches" remark about the Tea Party movement last Labor Day, Obama did not denounce it as "remarks that don't have any place in the public discourse". In fact, his communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, specifically denied that the President had any responsibility to behave as the "speech police" and condemn Hoffa's words.
And then, less than a week later, Obama's presidential campaign came out with AttackWatch.com, a website dedicated to policing what Republicans say about Obama. Apparently, despite his busy job, he can find the time to delegate others to comment on the invective of his opponents (but somehow not his allies).
Of course no president can spend their time policing the speech of the political arena. But, if they're going to do it from time to time -- as Obama does -- they should be even-handed. There's nothing admirable about denouncing the incivility of your opponents while casting a blind eye to the incivility of your allies. That sort of self-serving commitment to civility politicians is all too common, and Obama has steadfastly not risen above it.
Not only has Obama failed to denounce his own side's incivility, he's arguably rewarded it.
Who did he appoint to be chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC)? Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), a politician who routinely resorts to name-calling and demonizing. She has accused Republicans of rooting for failure, of wanting to reinstate Jim Crow laws, of wanting to deny seniors affordable medical care and instead set a "death trap" for them, of being "anti-women", and of "waging war on the unemployed". None of this has been denounced by Obama or resulted in a phone call to the victims.
OBAMA'S OWN EXAMPLE:
Last, but not least, Obama himself has routinely resorted to name-calling and demonized and/or misrepresented his opponents. Just to note a few examples:
1. He has frequently -- July 2005, June 2005, August 2006, March 2007 -- described Republicans as Social Darwinists. Republicans are no more Social Darwinists who oppose helping people than Democrats are communists who oppose wealth and productive labor. Obama denounces the latter caricature, but indulges in the former.
2. Obama prominently summarized the difference between Democrats and Republicans as being that Democrats, unlike Republicans:
"have a sense of neighborliness and a sense of community, and we are willing to look out for one another and help people who are vulnerable and help people who are down on their luck and give them a pathway to success and give them a ladder into the middle class."Saying that Republicans don't have a sense of neighborliness and community, etc., is just another derisive caricature.
3. Obama misrepresented Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as being in support of another 100 years of war in Iraq, when McCain clearly stated that what he supported was a peacetime deployment in Iraq, akin to how U.S. troops have been in South Korea or Japan for decades without seeing combat.
4. Obama misrepresented the GOP presidential candidates as opposing aid to Israel, when what they clearly said was that they wouldn't hand out foreign aid on an automatic, baseline-determined manner. They support aid to Israel, just not the budget mechanism that bases one year's funding on the amount of funding received the prior year.
Obama has a reputation of being above the political fray -- legal commentator Philip K. Howard recently called him "a model of civility" -- but it's a reputation he doesn't deserve. It's a reputation that the media has left intact, despite the obvious challenges to it.
Rather, Obama is a fairly typical politician when it comes to civility. He praises civil debate in the abstract, he denounces specific instances of his opponents being uncivil, but he doesn't denounce his allies for their specific acts of incivility and he frequently (and unapologetically) resorts to name-calling himself.
I don't know what's in Obama's heart any more than Obama knows what's in Limbaugh's heart. I don't know if he's intentionally setting a bad example and doesn't care, or if he simply doesn't realize that he routinely violates the standards of civil debate. (If I had to bet, I'd say the latter.)
But, whatever the explanation, the fact is that he doesn't practice what he preaches. Those who don't catch on to his inconsistency wind up following a bad example, mistakenly thinking that calling Republicans "Social Darwinists" is compatible with civility. Those who do catch the hypocrisy -- for instance, Republicans and conservatives -- take it as yet another act of antagonism: "Here's this guy, telling me to be civil and watch my words, while he says I have no sense of community and want another 100 years of war!" Such hypocrisy inspires cynicism and resentment, not civility.
When it comes to civility, we desperately need good examples. But President Obama isn't one of them. And the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can maybe start creating some genuinely good ones, because there are currently precious few of them in American politics.