4/06/2008

Lame Political Discourse: Part 3

Until the Pennsylvania primaries two weeks from now, there is not much new going on in the political world. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are still fighting each other tooth and nail, John McCain is still trying to cobble together Republican support, and the pundits keep poring over fluctuating polls measuring head-to-head general election matchups. A consequence of these slow news periods is that it is easier for the media to focus on trivial or mundane matters. However, these dry periods also pose a risk for politicians because the magnifying glass of a larger news hole makes it easier for them to be caught flatfooted and for their warts to be exposed.

The latest political foul ball comes from John McCain, who took offense to a comment liberal talk show host Ed Schultz made prior to a Barack Obama campaign event last Friday. Schultz called McCain a warmonger while he was ginning up the crowd prior to Obama's appearance. John McCain called upon Obama to repudiate the remarks:

"Mr. Schultz is entitled to his views, [but] I would hope that in keeping with his commitment that Senator Obama would condemn such language, since it was part of his campaign."
Republican National Committee Chairman Robert Duncan took things a step further:
"Enough is enough. Senator Obama has an obligation to speak out and publicly reject and denounce--not applaud--the shameful and contemptible remarks made by his surrogates."
Phony political outrage at its best.

Politicians are called on to repudiate their supporters' remarks far too often. Hyperbole is common fare for politicians, but at what point does political rhetoric border on the ridiculous? Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley wrote an excellent piece last month about political hypersensitivity:
"...I unequivocally dissociate myself from remarks by my second cousin to the effect that my worthy opponent is a 'prize bitch.' My cousin is a dog breeder and thought she was being complimentary. She did not appreciate that such phraseology could give offense to certain segments of the population who are unfamiliar with dogs. Nevertheless, there is no room for canine imagery in a national political campaign, and Cousin Maisie has dropped out of our family in order to avoid causing any distraction from the central issues that we ought to be debating, such as terrorism and health care."
In the case of McCain and the GOP, however, hypersensitivity is not really what's going on here. It's hypocrisy. For example, John McCain maligned Hillary Clinton in January with this statement regarding her position on Iraq:
"...[I]ncredibly, incredibly Sen. Clinton decided that she wants to surrender, she wants to raise a white flag..."
This line of attack impugning the patriotism of their Democratic rivals is pretty standard fare for the GOP, as I addressed here and here. Republicans may say that it is true that Clinton (and the Democrats by extension) wants to "surrender" to terrorists simply because, they argue, it's hard to equate troop withdrawals with anything but that. But if that's the case, then wouldn't Ed Schultz's "warmonger" comments also have some validity, especially given McCain's "bomb bomb bomb Iran" remarks?

But it gets even better.

Last year, in response to a nonstory about the spelling of flak jackets, a McCain aide quipped:
"Obama wouldn't know the difference between an RPG and a bong."
So this aide essentially called Obama a bonehead and a pothead at the same time. But whatever happened to "condemning such language" and "rejecting shameful and contemptible remarks made by surrogates?"

The problem with contemporary politics is that you have a bunch of grown men and women who aspire to be our national leaders and represent this nation to the world, but carry themselves as if they are running for 7th grade student council president. Do politicians reduce themselves to pettiness for the sake of driving down turnout among all but their most loyal supporters? Do politicians really believe that childish namecalling, feigned outrage, and gutter-level insinuations espouse true leadership? Are they hoping that some of these charges stick to the point of crippling their rivals? Does intellectual integrity and statesmanship not matter anymore? Why do voters not demand more from their leaders in this regard? And why do the media lend credence to this nonsense by reporting on it in the first place?

These kinds of back-and-forths between the candidates might be fun for political junkies, but politics is not a sitcom. People are losing their homes and dying in Iraq, but it takes a mild bit of namecalling from a political surrogate to generate this level of political outrage?

Sometimes politicians just don't get it.

6 comment(s):

Nikki said...

great topic. I have written before about how bad I dislike the "denouncer" movement. It is so popular for politicians and the talking heads on tv to force and apology or some sort of condemnation about a statement. Not all stupid statements require a instant and clear take back required from so many in the media or politicians themselves. We are intelligent enough to decifer what is and is not a misstatement or a generally held belief. It gets so anyone who misspeaks has to retract or apologize or denounce and quite frankly it is tiring and it makes for dead horse beatings in the news. Though there are times like the Reverend Wright topic that do require further examination. great read! :)N

Brett said...

The outrage over "warmonger" made me laugh. "Warmonger"? Bush has been called far worse since 2003 - Kerry was called much worse in 2004.

I've never liked this "hail fellow how art thou" Iowa-Nice type of discourse. That's not to say that I think it should degenerate into a bunch of Ad Hominem attacks, but if an opponent is clearly showing cowardice on something, call him/her a coward. If he's been fomenting a war and supporting it since the beginning, call him a warmonger. Be creative about it, too; the best insults in my honest opinion are not "curse words" like the B-word(s) and the like, but long, drawn out insults. Above all else, attach it to a piece of solid policy criticism.

After all, there is plenty of private space for politicians to be civil with one another when negotiating policy.

Schenck said...

Bob Barr will have to defeat Mike Gravel first if he wants the Lib nom. Have you seen Gravel's new video? Holy crap. I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or vote for him.

The Blue South said...

The reason the candidates use these sort of tactics is because they work. Most people either don't have the time or don't take the time to look at the candidates thoughtfully and make decisions based on perception. How does a candidate craft perception? By using playground rhetoric. It's really a simple case of supply and demand. Until the public at large becomes more engaged in its democracy, this is what we can expect.

Brett said...

I think it is probably a little too optimistic to expect people to become more enlightened and grow out of this stuff. Insults and sloganizing have been part of American politics since Thomas Jefferson, and their acceptance has always had to do with people's apathy with/inattention to policy (even in Jefferson's time, books and the like were available for anyone who was literate and could afford them).

Anthony Palmer said...

TBS,

You're right. It would just be nice though if people could engage in politics without being political. I don't see why people have to stoop to this level of stupidity and why voters aren't outraged by it. I guess they don't believe they deserve better.

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Nikki,

I think this "denouncer movement," as you put it, is a way to get the media and punditry to box their opponents into a corner. In a way, Obama's refusal to do this with Jeremiah Wright as much as some people would like runs counter to this narrative and could even be a net positive for him. But I think most of the people who are angry about the Wright story are probably people who were never going to vote for him anyway.

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Brett,

That's exactly right. At least attach a bit of meaningful policy criticism to your attacks. But this would require politicians to be intellectually honest in their criticisms, however. Think of how many people make the leap from not voting to fund Military Helicopter Model XYZ that has a questionable safety record to "SENATOR SCHMUCK DOESN'T SUPPORT OUR TROOPS!" Frankly, it's too easy to do that, so I guess that will never change.

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Schenck,

I actually plan on writing more about Bob Barr in a future post. Stay tuned!