It might be true that they don't have an obligation to repudiate every last instance of incivility. That would take an enormous amount of time and effort.
But that doesn't mean that we don't have the ability (or even more, an obligation) to speak out against specific instances of incivility from time to time when they're presented. And, of course, we do. We have an obligation to defy injustice at least sometimes, if not every last instance of it on the planet.
After all, we don't have the ability to help every person in need in the world, but that doesn't mean we have no duty to help out the needy from time to time. That is, the perfect need not be the enemy of the good.
And, how else are we to set a higher standard of political debate if we don't point out examples of failures of civil debate?
In particular, people should point out incivility even-handedly, and not just when it gives them a chance to criticize their opponents. (It's this cynical, selective, self-serving commitment to civil debate -- where people only enforce it on their opponents and not their allies -- that leads many people to conclude that civility is bogus.)
Plus, if someone in a position of prominence -- a president, congressional leader, or party chair, for instance -- were to start publicly criticizing people (even members of their own party) for engaging in name-calling, etc., there'd probably be a lot less of it to police.
EXAMPLES AND ANALYSIS
QUESTIONER [unidentified]: Talking about the comments that came up last night, the statements by this questioner talking about President Obama being a Muslim, talking about Muslims being a problem in this country. You just said that question is offensive to the press, is it not also perhaps offensive to the millions of Muslims in America?-- Republican presidential candidate former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), September 18, 2015, responding to a question concerning remarks made at a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. At Trump's event, an attendee said Muslims were the problem with the country, and Trump did not challenge the remarks.
SANTORUM: Here's what I have to say about that. People are entitled to their opinions. We have a First Amendment for a reason. People can just stand up and say what they want. You don't have to agree with it, you don't have to like it. I have a lot of events where people get up and say things that I don't like. I have a lot people say things about me that I don't like. Read my Twitter feed. But I'm going to defend your right to say it. Whether I disagree with it or agree with it really isn't the point. The point is, do they have the right to say it, and do we have an obligation to correct it? And my answer is yes, they have a right to say it, and no, we don't have an obligation at a town hall meeting to correct everything that someone says that we disagree with. … I'm not playing this game that you guys want to play. The President can defend himself, he doesn't need Rick Santorum to defend him. He's got you doing that very, very well. So cut it out. … It’s not my job, it’s not Donald Trump’s job, it’s not anybody’s job to police a question. The questioner can say whatever he wants, it’s a free country.
Comment: Santorum is knocking over a straw man: no one has suggested that the remarks made at the Trump event should be illegal. Freedom of speech – as enshrined in the First Amendment – allows people to make remarks like the attendee at Trump's event, but it also allows people to criticize those remarks. Santorum (like Trump) is free to do so, but declines. We are free to think less of Trump for not criticizing bigoted remarks (which they were), and to think less of Santorum for not criticizing Trump's silence. The point of debate is to arrive at the truth, so of course people should challenge falsehoods. Santorum is evading the question of whether the remarks in question were offensive to American Muslims, using "right to their opinion" and "not my job to police civility" rhetoric.
"This is the first time in my life that I have caused controversy by not saying something. I didn't say anything. By not saying something. … So I started by saying, am I morally obligated to defend the president every time somebody says something bad or controversial about him? I don't think so! … Then I said, if someone made nasty statements or controversial statements about me to the president, do you think he would come to my rescue? I say, no chance."-- Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, September 19, 2015. Days before, Trump had not corrected a town hall questioner who claimed that President Barack Obama was not American and was Muslim rather than Christian.
Comment: Trump is saying that it’s not his job to police civility, on the grounds that others would not police civility for his sake.
LAUER: Does a candidate for president, in this case the Republican front-runner, have a responsibility to shut down a supporter when the supporter erroneously says that the President's not an American, that he's Muslim, and then goes on to say, “We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims.” Does Mr. Trump need to apologize to the President and to Muslims?-- Republican presidential candidate Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), September 18, 2015, during an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer. Christie was referring to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who the day before had not corrected a town hall questioner who claimed that President Barack Obama was not American and was Muslim rather than Christian.
CHRISTIE: He's got to decide what he wants to do for himself but I would just tell you that if somebody at one of my town hall meetings said something like that I would correct them and say, “No, the President’s a Christian and he was born in this country.” I mean, I think those two things are self-evident.
LAUER: Do you think it would be right for Mr. Trump to apologize to Muslims this morning?
CHRISTIE: Well, listen, I think it's – Donald Trump's got to decide, as we've seen – and I’ve said this all along – he's got to decide how serious a candidate he wants to be and how he handles different problems like this are going to determine that in the eyes of the American people. I'm not going to lecture him about what to do, I'll just tell you what I would do. And I wouldn’t have permitted that. If someone brought that up at a town hall meeting of mine, I would said, “No, listen, before we answer, let's clear some things up for the rest of the audience.” And I think you have an obligation as a leader to do that.
Comment: Christie is evading the question, perhaps with “not my decision” or “not my job to police civility” rhetoric. On the one hand, he’s saying that a leader has an obligation to correct false assertions, but he’s also saying he’s not going to lecture Trump about it. But, if Trump has an obligation that he’s failing to fulfill, then why not say so, and detail how he should live up to the obligation? If there’s a good reason for Christie to correct the record, why isn’t there a good reason for Trump to do the same?
"My problem is, why is it only us? Why is it only we be concerned about tone. The meanest, most extreme people in American politics are members of the Democrat Party and the American left. Tone? These are the people rooting for people to die on Twitter! These are the people rooting for people to get cancer on Twitter. These are the people who are intolerant, mean-spirited. They're the bullies, and they don't care one bit about their tone, and they don't get punished for it. Yet we come along and we're the ones that have to make sure that we're not seen as mean-spirited and bullyish and only one way of looking at anything. (sigh) This whole notion of "tone," I totally understand the art of the persuasion here and I understand where tone can come into it. But the problem I have is that all of these rules that end up shackling people, all these rules that end up causing people to be not who they are on our side, are never applied to people on the left. Look what these people say about -- take your pick. What they say about anything. George W. Bush. Sarah Palin. Take your pick of any Republican anywhere, and what they say about them, and they're never punished for it. Nobody ever goes to them and says, "Your tone needs to be moderated a little bit here, Mr. Hoyer. Your tone needs to moderated a little, Ms. Pelosi." Dingy Harry? For crying out! Tone?"-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, May 21, 2015, remarking on comments made earlier that day by Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) on a need to improve the tone of political debate.
Comment: Limbaugh is demonizing Democrats and liberals with the "only my opponent" caricature. What evidence does he have – rigorous evidence that doesn't involve selective cherry-picking – that Democrats and liberals are more uncivil than Republicans and conservatives? He is asserting that there is hypocrisy in the application of standards of civil debate, that Democrats and liberals impose them on Republicans and conservatives but not on themselves. This might not amount to saying that civility is bogus, but he does seem to say it's not worth policing.
JAMES ROSEN, FOX NEWS CHANNEL: In his remarks at the Ted Kennedy the other day, the president lamented that our politics today are not more purposeful and elevated. He also lamented that too often ideology gets in the way of basic respect. Those remarks struck me because this week we saw my CNN colleague Dana Bash do an interview with the Senate minority leader Harry Reid in which he asked him about his decision in the midst of the 2012 presidential campaign to take to the Senate floor and accuse Mitt Romney of not paying his taxes, and when Dana Bash mentioned this to him, she mentioned how it seemed to some people McCarthyite. And of course no evidence has ever been produced that Mitt Romney failed to pay his taxes, and I wonder if President Obama, who has lamented this lack of civility in our politics, this disrespect in our politics, has any view of Harry Reid telling Dana Bash, "Well Romney didn't get elected did he?"-- White House press briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest April 1, 2015. The quote in question comes from a March 31, 2015, interview of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) by CNN's Dana Bash.
JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: Well I haven't had the opportunity to talk to the president about Sen. Reid's interview. Obviously, Sen. Reid is somebody who is going to decide for himself about what he says on the Senate floor. He obviously is a vocal supporter of the president, and they have had a partnership that will go down in history as very productive. But ultimately, it is up to Sen. Reid to decide, what he is going to say on the House floor. There are a number of things Sen. Reid, over his career that, he has said pretty proudly were independent of the view of anyone else.
JAMES ROSEN: But it is the president's choice and his spokesman's choice to call out conduct unbecoming of our highest elected officials, when it is in fact unbecoming. Are you going to take this opportunity now?
JOSH EARNEST: Not when it is three years old.
Comment: First, this is the "not my decision" evasion. Yes, Reid is in charge of what Reid says, but that's true of most everybody, right? How does that prevent us from criticizing Reid's remarks (or anyone else's remarks, for that matter)? Second, there's no good reason that President Barack Obama can't police civility on remarks that are three years old. Obama recently criticized remarks made by Republicans about the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") back when it was passed in 2010, why can't he comment on remarks made in 2012?
WALLACE: You have taken some heat recently, I do have to tell you, for refusing to say whether or not President Obama loves this country and whether or not he's a Christian. And the conventional wisdom is either you're pandering to the Obama haters or you're not ready for prime time. Which is it?-- Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI), March 1, 2015, during an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday. The conversation concerned remarks made by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) on February 18, 2015, at an event Walker also spoke at.
WALKER: The answer is neither. I am not going to take a manufactured media crisis and take and follow that path instead of going to the path that I think Americans want, which is leaders who will stand up and tell them where they stand on the issues that matter to them and talk about how you're going to ensure that that family that's been out of work for the last six months can find a way to be a part of this recovery, talk about how we're going to take the power out of Washington and put it in the hands of the hardworking taxpayers. Those are the things people care about. And as I, after last week's visits to Wisconsin and to Michigan, when I heard from people talk about what happened in Washington, they said you need to push back and say that's what the American people want to talk about, not this nonsense.
WALLACE: I agree with you, the question about whether or not Obama is a Christian was nonsense, was stupid. On the other hand, the question about whether or not he loves the country, Rudy Giuliani said that at a dinner for you. It seems to me, it's fair game to say to you after the dinner, what do you think of it? Marco Rubio, one of your potential contenders, said I don't think there's any doubt he loves the country. I just think his policies are wrong. Isn't that a better, smarter way to handle that?
WALKER: Yes. But let's be clear on the point with the mayor. The mayor wasn't speaking on my behalf. He happened to show up half-way through an event that we had that night and he can speak on his own. That's what I've said repeatedly since that time, as the president can. I don't question that. I think any person who's going to put their name on the ballot has to have a love for their country and their state and their jurisdiction no matter where they were. So, I -- I don't contest that against anyone who's running for office out there. My point wasn't to get in the middle of that, but rather to say I want to lift the debate up, to talk about issues that people really care about. I'm not going down that path. I'm not making those arguments. I'm going to talk about the things that matter to everyday Americans.
WALLACE: Just to be clear, because you seem to -- to indicate you think the president, President Obama, loves this country?
WALKER: I think, in the end, he and anybody else who is willing to put their name on the ballot certainly has to have the love for country to do that.
Comment: First, Walker is using "Americans want" rhetoric. More, Walker is saying he doesn't have an obligation to police Giuliani's remarks disparaging President Barack Obama. Is that true? By comparison, did Obama have an obligation to police the remarks Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa made disparaging the Tea Party at an event they both spoke at on September 5, 2011? Given that Walker is insisting we should talk about substantive issues and "lift up the debate", isn't it fair to ask him if he will denounce Giuliani's remarks, remarks which don't seem to live up to the standard of debate that Walker is advocating?
"Let me just say this. It is fantastic to finally see some people realizing what's going on when the left, the media, keeps going to our candidates, "What do you think about what Rudy said about Obama?" In the first place, Scott Walker is showing everybody how to answer that question, how to answer all those questions. And another thing about this, we're also finally getting people turning it around on 'em. "Hey, why don't you go ask some Democrats what they think of Bill Clinton flying all over the world with a pedophile? Why don't you guys go ask the Democrats what it's like to have to stand up and defend Joe Biden every day." It's always a one-way street. Obama goes out and says some crazy things, apologizes for the country, or Rudy will come out and say, "I don't think he loves the country. Not the way we do." Then the press will go to other Republicans and ask them two things, to condemn Rudy and to validate Obama. … But it never works the other way. … And finally there's some people now pointing out the right way to do this. Don't answer the question and turn it back on 'em. For example, Scott Walker, this is just an example. He had his own answer to it. He was asked about Obama's Christianity. He said: I don't know. I don't know whether Obama's a Christian. Why are you asking me? Go ask him. It doesn't matter to me whether Obama's a Christian. … Somebody will ask a Republican, "Well, what do you think about Rudy, Rudy insulting Obama, Rudy saying that Obama doesn't love America?" The response is, "You know, I don't remember the last time you guys went around and started asking Hillary if she's very worried about her husband flying all over the world with a pedophile and showing up at the pedophile's homes in New York and Florida. When are you gonna ask Bill Clinton what it's like, when are you gonna ask people in the Democrat Party to defend Bill Clinton for doing this kind of stuff?" … A TV station in Florida, WPBF … They were interviewing Rubio about Giuliani's remarks, and Marco Rubio said, "I don't feel like I'm in a position to have to answer for every person in my party that makes a claim." … This is Rubio: "Democrats are not asked to answer every time Joe Biden says something embarrassing, so I don't know why I should answer every time a Republican does. I'll suffice it to say I believe the president loves America. I think his ideas are bad.""-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, February 23, 2015, discussing the responses by Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's remarks that President Barack Obama does not love the country.
Comment: Limbaugh and Rubio (and perhaps Walker) are saying that it is not their job to police civility. Inconsistent treatment on the part of the media when it comes to reporting and condemning unacceptable rhetoric (that is, hypocritically going easy on Democrats and liberals while piling on Republicans and conservatives, such that the latter get hit with guilt by association accusations but not the former) is no excuse failing to repudiate name-calling and invective. The fact that people fail to be consistent in implementing civility doesn't mean civility is bogus.
EZRA KLEIN: To turn a bit towards politics, at this point, according to the polls, you are the most polarizing president really since we began polling. … In your State of the Union, you struck back at critics who say that the idea of healing some of these divisions is naïve or impossible. So when you welcome your successor into office, what would you tell them is worth trying that you think can still work, that would reduce the polarization?-- President Barack Obama, during domestic policy Vox interview, released February 9, 2015, with Ezra Klein.
BARACK OBAMA: Well, there are a couple of things that in my mind, at least, contribute to our politics being more polarized than people actually are. And I think most people just sense this in their daily lives. Everybody's got a family member or a really good friend from high school who is on the complete opposite side of the political spectrum. And yet, we still love them, right? … But a lot of it has to do with the fact that a) the balkanization of the media means that we just don't have a common place where we get common facts and a common worldview the way we did 20, 30 years ago. And that just keeps on accelerating, you know. … Gerrymandering contributes to it. There's no incentive for most members of Congress, on the House side at least, in congressional districts, to even bother trying to appeal. And a lot of it has to do with just unlimited money. … So my advice to a future president is increasingly try to bypass the traditional venues that create divisions and try to find new venues within this new media that are quirkier, less predictable.
Comment: At no point during the discussion of polarization does Obama offer the straightforward suggestion that there needs to be less name-calling and incivility in politics, let alone that he himself needs to do more to improve his record on civil debate. This omission seems to be along the lines of either the "only my opponent" caricature, or the "not my job to police civility" evasion.
REPORTER [unidentified]: Quick question on Michigan and the right-to-work debate, which has gotten a bit testy today on the House floor. There’s one Democrat, Doug Geiss, who said today that if this right-to-work initiative is signed into law, “there will be blood.” Since the President weighed in yesterday, and obviously made his feelings known, but has talked about changing the tone here in Washington and around the country, does the White House feel any obligation to tell fellow Democrats to debate this issue, but debate it in a peaceful and sort of ---- White House briefing with Press Secretary Jay Carney, December 11, 2012.
CARNEY: The President believes in debate that’s civil. I haven’t seen those comments and I’m not sure that they mean what some would interpret them to mean. I just haven’t seen them. You heard the President talk about his views. He has always opposed the so-called right-to-work laws. As he said, those laws are generally political and not economic. They’re more about the right to earn less pay than they are helpful to our economy. And he presented those views yesterday in Michigan.
Comment: Carney seems to be suggesting that Geiss' words may have been meant metaphorically, not literally. Given Geiss' reference to the Battle of the Overpass -- a violent incident between members of the United Auto Workers union and Ford Motor Company security guards in the 1930's in Michigan -- is the literal interpretation of his violent, "there will be blood" rhetoric more appropriate? Notice that Carney ultimately refuses to denounce Geiss' remarks, which is consistent with the Obama administration's refusal to denounce allies for name-calling and uncivil rhetoric, and inconsistent with their claim to believe "in debate that's civil". The Obama administration tends only to denounce uncivil rhetoric from their opponents.
"What do you do to a school yard bully? You punch them in the face. Do you think any of these people on talk radio, if they’re punched in the face by a Republican nominee, do you think they would push back? No, they’re cowards. They're bullies. Punch them in the face, and they back off. Bullies do that. Mitt Romney -- and we said it non-stop for two years -- he would never stand up to these bullies. And so they framed his campaign and he got his tail whipped."-- TV pundit Joe Scarborough, December 10, 2012, on MSNBC's Morning Joe.
Comment: Scarborough is criticizing talk radio (and other) pundits who say things that amount to name-calling. So, in a sense, he's advocating civility. However, he's resorting to violent rhetoric and (it seems) saying that people should resist these pundits by retaliating in kind. He is also faulting GOP presidential candidate former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) for failing to police the speech of his supporters. This is a fair criticism, though it's a mistake -- of the "only my opponent" variety -- to think that only Romney was guilty of that failing (President Barack Obama also failed to police the rhetoric of his supporters, as well).
WILSON: "But we have to get to something that our listeners have been commenting about over the last couple of days, and it had to do with that Labor Day event. The President takes the stage, but a few minutes before he did that, Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., was on the stage, and said that he had an army ready to do the President's bidding, and to -- "-- White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, September 7, 2011, appearing on WMAL "Morning Majority" show with hosts Brian Wilson, Bryan Nehman, and Mary Katharine Ham. The discussion concerned comments by Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., at a Labor Day rally (at which President Barack Obama also spoke, after Hoffa), on September 5, 2011.
[AUDIO CLIP OF HOFFA PLAYS]
HOFFA: "Let's take these son of a bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong."
[AUDIO CLIP OF HOFFA ENDS]
WILSON: "Now yesterday, Dan, there were many opportunities for the White House to say that was language that was over the top, to say that perhaps that the rhetoric had gone too far. Jay Carney had time and time and time again was given the opportunity to do that, and refused to do it. Does it mean then that there is tacit approval at the White House at the things that Mr. Hoffa has said?"
PFEIFFER: "No. Look, I think that this is a bit of a parlor game in Washington, which is, let's try to take anything that anyone who supports a politician or the President or [inaudible] Republican candidate says, and pin it on them and make the, you know, President have to serve as the speech police for the Democratic party. And someone from the Republicans do the same thing -- "
WILSON: "But, Dan, it was -- he said that he had an army ready to do the President's bidding, and that it was time to take the S.O.B.s out. That's a sort of a harsh thing that you should say before the President of the United States speaks. The President has called for you know, a greater and higher political discourse in this country, this doesn't seem to meet the standard."
PFEIFFER: "Well, look, that's a judgment for you guys to make, it's a judgment for others to make. It's -- I don't think -- what the President went there to talk about what he was going to do to create jobs and grow the economy, that's what he's going to do on Thursday night. And, I can promise you that I would do nothing else with my day if it was only to serve as the person to approve or disapprove of what every person in the Democratic Party or who supports the President said -- "
WILSON: "So I just have to ask you, do you think this is appropriate language in that event?"
PFEIFFER: "Look, I wasn't at that event, I wasn't there -- "
NEHMAN: "But you heard it. You've heard the tape . Come on, you know all about it."
PFEIFFER: "What's that?"
WILSON: "You've heard it, you've listened to it no doubt. It's been out -- you know what was said. I'm asking you now, in retrospect, was that appropriate language to be used at a presidential event?"
PFEIFFER: "Look, I think playing the sort of gotcha game where you get the White House to -- "
WILSON: "So you're not going to disavow these comments, either."
PFEIFFER: "We are focused on what the President's saying, what the President wants to do and how we move forward and we're not going to get caught into distractions like this."
NEHMAN: "OK, so then we won't hear anybody from the White House then ask a Republican to take back a comment that somebody may make in the future if it may go possibly over the line."
PFEIFFER: "If you're asking me whether we're going to ask someone to be responsible for everything that was said at every event, I don't know that you've ever heard us do that -- "
NEHMAN: "Well, 2008, actually, there was calls for John McCain when Bill Cunningham made reference before a speech to take back what he said."
PFEIFFER: "I was on that campaign. I have zero recollection of that. But that's not surprising, considering that whole two-year period of my life is sort of a blur. But -- so I don't remember what that was, I don't know whether we called for that. I don't remember certainly doing that myself. I don't remember the President doing that."
NEHMAN: "OK, so civility, then is just up to each individual. It has nothing to do with John Boehner, has nothing to do with Barack Obama. It has nothing to do with other leaders of certain parties."
PFEIFFER: "No, what everyone should do is -- is -- is -- is make their best judgment of how they be civil. What I don't think makes sense is to distract from the major issues at hand to try to get everyone to go back and approve and disapprove of every single thing that every single person has said. I don't think -- "
HAM: "But it seems fair to me, given that the tone and the rhetoric and that entire message has been a central part of who Barack Obama is as a President and as a leader, that this makes me wonder, did he really mean it, or was he just using it in the wake of other people saying things that -- the party he didn't particularly agree with."
PFEIFFER: "No, I think he, I think -- you mean, you have -- the President has carried himself in a certain way, and he'll continue to carry himself in a way that is -- where he is civil, respectful, is someone who is willing -- and gets much guff from his own party for doing it, for being willing to look for agreement with even people he has vehement disagreement with. Look at some of his people he worked closely with on, like Senator Tom Coburn, who agrees on almost nothing with the President, but where they can find small areas of agreement, they'll work together. And so, that's who the President is, that's the campaign he ran in 2008, that's the campaign he's going to run in 2012. What I don't think makes sense is to say, OK -- is to then try to get off the major issues at hand by taking everything that anyone says at an event that the President attends as a guest and ask them to -- and ask the President to approve or disapprove."
HAM:"I look forward to the new standard."
Comment: First, it's not a "parlor game" or "gotcha game" or a "distraction" or some sort of "guilt by association" rhetoric to ask people to criticize incivility (and Hoffa's comments clearly were just that). And asking Obama to criticize one instance of incivility isn't asking him to "police" the speech of everything said by everyone in his party. Is that what Democrats were asking Republicans to do when they demanded that Republicans rebuke Rush Limbaugh for his name-calling of Sandra Fluke? No, of course not. (Note that, days after this interview on WMAL, the Obama campaign introduced AttackWatch.com, a website policing the speech of many people, so long as they had said something critical of Obama.) Obama has called for a higher standard of political dialogue and that involves defying and rebuking incivility even-handedly, not just in your opponents. Second, Pfeiffer is evading the question when he says he wasn't and the event that Hoffa spoke at (he doesn't need to be to at the event to evaluate what Hoffa said at it), and again evading the question when he says civility is "a judgment for others to make". Lastly, contrary to what Pfeiffer says, Obama is not a good example of civility. Civility isn't about working with opponents, it's about not distorting them and calling them names. Obama often resorts to these behaviors, and says nothing while his allies do the same. Obama has worked with Republicans, and also demonized them. Civility says he should stop the latter; it says nothing about the former. Again, it's the responsibility of all of us to protest incivility, particularly if -- like Obama -- we've prominently advocated civil debate. Not just in the opponent's party, but in your own as well.
TAPPER: And lastly, Jay, in January, President Obama said after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, “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 the ails of the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment, make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” Did he mean that?-- White House briefing with Press Secretary Jay Carney, September 6, 2011, responding to a question from Jake Tapper of ABC News. The discussion concerned comments by Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., at a Labor Day rally (at which President Barack Obama also spoke, after Hoffa), on September 5, 2011.
CARNEY: Of course he did.
TAPPER: How does the comments -- how did the comments by the Teamsters’ president fit in with that?
CARNEY: Well, first of all, those weren’t comments by the President. Secondly, and as I think it’s been reported by --
TAPPER: Comments by a union leader at an event that President Obama spoke at.
CARNEY: I understand that there is a ritual in Washington that somebody says something and you link the associations, and then everybody who has an association with him or her somehow has to avow or disavow it. The President wasn’t there -- I mean, he wasn’t on stage. He didn’t speak for another 20 minutes. He didn’t hear it. I really don’t have any comment beyond that, Jake.
TAPPER: Okay. Well, some of us covered the campaign and recall a time when somebody made some harsh comments about then-Senator Obama while -- during the introduction of a McCain rally and the Obama campaign was offended and expected an apology, and Senator McCain came out and did so.
CARNEY: Mr. Hoffa speaks for himself. He speaks for the labor movement, the AFL-CIO. The President speaks for himself. I speak for the President. What the President was glad to do yesterday was have the opportunity to present his views on the importance of working Americans and on the importance of taking measures to help working Americans --
TAPPER: Okay, so the precedent --
CARNEY: -- to create jobs and grow the economy.
TAPPER: So the precedent you’re setting right now for the 2012 election is, the candidate -- the Republican candidates are the ones that we need to pay attention to, and those who introduce them at rallies, their surrogates -- you don’t have to pay attention to anything that they say.
CARNEY: Jake, I really -- I think I’ve said what I can say about this.
TAPPER: I just -- is that the standard now?
CARNEY: You can report it as you --
TAPPER: I’d rather not have to do this Washington Kabuki every time something happens --
CARNEY: It’s up to you to do the Kabuki --
TAPPER: -- but if that’s the standard -- if that’s the standard, then --
CARNEY: The standard is, we should focus on the actions we can take to grow the economy and create jobs, instead of focusing on Kabuki theater.
TAPPER: Did the President find the comments appropriate?
CARNEY: Can we move on?
Comment: Tapper references Obama's calls for civility in January 2011, and then asks Carney if Obama will live up to that standard by condemning Hoffa's name-calling. Carney -- along with the Obama administration as a whole -- refused to criticize this specific instance of incivility (even though they've condemned name-calling in the past, when it's come from their opponents). Carney is correct that Hoffa's comments weren't the Obama's, but that doesn't mean asking Obama to protest and rebuke Hoffa's remarks is somehow guilt by association. People have an obligation to stand up to and defy deeds that are wrong (name-calling, in this case). Asking Obama to do so is not "kabuki" or anything approaching a frivolous request.
(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)