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If This is What Counts for Civil Discourse…

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( – promoted by lowkell)

By Mike Lieberman, Chair, Arlington County Democratic Committee

January 2011

“Repealing the Job-Killing Healthcare Law Act.”  This is what the new Republican leadership chose to call its bill to repeal the new health care reform bill.  “Job-Killing” – a dubious claim at best, and a needlessly incendiary term at worst, especially for a bill that has no chance of being enacted into law.

Over last several years, I, like so many of Americans, have cringed at the tone of our public discourse.  It seems as though name calling and mud slinging is now considered a baseline for political debate, with every new low breathlessly covered by a media hungry to decide which side has scored more points, and what those points could mean for an election now nearly two years away.

Recent history is replete with discouraging examples of this demoguery – from Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouting “you lie” at President Obama during last year’s State of the Union address, to Republican Leader John Boehner’s overheated screams of “Hell No” on the House floor during the debate on the health care reform bill, to then-candidate and now Republican Congressman Ben Quayle claiming in a campaign ad that “Barack Obama is the worst president in history” and that he would “go to Washington and knock the hell out of the place.”  But Republicans are not alone in these outbursts.  Equally shameful are Democratic exhortations that Republican claims of a “government takeover of health care [is] ia big lie, just like Goebbels,” equating Republican arguments to the lies told to Jews during the Holocaust.

Such claims are all the more discouraging because they are unnecessary.  Our elected representatives are expected to stick to their principles; indeed, we often elect people we are confident will do so.  But it is possible to disagree on an issue even as heated as health care reform without claiming the other side is “job-killing,” comparing them to Nazis, or claiming they will establish death panels to kill your grandmother.

I worked on Capitol Hill for six years for a Member of Congress named John Spratt who took the opposite approach.  He went out of his way to be kind to everyone he met – Republican or Democrat – and considered Republican members in all cases colleagues, and in many cases friends.  This is not to say he was not often frustrated by positions he disagreed with; he was.  But when he disagreed, he did so respectfully, and did as much research as possible to back up his position in the hope that the weight of facts would win converts to his cause.

John Spratt lost his re-election to a 15th term in 2010, and will not be returning to Congress.  But at his going away party, one of his Republican colleagues, Henry Brown – a man who voted differently that John on nearly every contentious piece of legislation that came before the House – not only attended, but offered his thanks for the opportunity to serve with John, and shared gratitude for the many things they had accmplished together for their home state of South Carolina.  It was a demonstration that cooperation and collegiality does exist across party lines in Congress, and an example that among the din of hyperbole and name calling, there is and should be another way.

As we move into yet another election year in Virginia – and one whose stakes run particularly high because of redistricting – I sincerely hope that candidates in both parties, and those running against each other in primaries, will pause to choose their words carefully, without the damaging labels or rhetoric we have become all too used to.  As Chair of the Arlington Democratic Party, I consider it a personal goal to urge decorum and respect from all candidates on our Democratic ballot, and I have every hope that my friends on the Republican side will do the same.  

We can be better.  We must be better.  We owe ourselves better.