We are blessed with the freedom to say whatever we want about our president. But those who cast Obama as something other than one of us don’t understand him and don’t understand what it means to be American. E. J. Dionne, Jr.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the GOP candidates who are stomping all over each other to win their party's nomination. Their one unifying theme is to demean the presidency of Obama and to assassinate his character - at whatever costs. Since, by all appearances, they are merely appealing to the basest of their base, the cost will no doubt be highly destructive - not only to the country but to their party as well.
John Avlon, CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, writes about the civic cost that comes with "the radioactive rhetoric that gets thrown out to excite the conservative crowds." He describes the debates this primary season as being less like Lincoln-Douglas and more akin to the punch-drunk boxing of former heavyweight champion Buster Douglas - entertaining but with some great upsets.
It's not just that the most irresponsible candidates can play to the base and get a boost in the polls, while more sober-minded candidates like Jon Huntsman fail to get attention. The real damage is to the process of running for president itself. Because when low blows get rewarded, the incentive to try to emulate Lincoln -- holding yourself to a higher standard -- is diminished. And one barometer of this atmospheric shift is in the increasingly overheated rhetoric by candidates attacking the current president. This serial disrespect ends up unintentionally diminishing the office of president itself.Who can forget Newt Gingrich accusing Obama of having a "Kenyan anti-Colonial mindset," or invoking the specter of "Obama's secular socialist machine" and then calling him the "most radical president in American history"? But, as Avlon points out, "accuracy - or even aiming in the general vicinity of truth - isn't the point."
Newt's twisted history is bad enough, but Santorum's sanctimonious religious zealotry - also with a large dab of mythology - is, in the opinion of this writer, far and away outside all bounds of decency.
Rick Santorum raised eyebrows this past weekend for saying Obama wants to impose a "phony theology" on America. Santorum has since tried to clarify that he was not trying to raise doubts about the president's religion and I'll take him at his word. Likewise, when Santorum compares GOP primary voters to members of the "greatest generation" called to act against the rise of Nazi Germany, I'll assume that Santorum isn't intentionally comparing the president to Hitler.But as Dana Milbank writes, "Rick Santorum sees Nazis everywhere: in the Middle East, in doctor’s offices and medical labs, in the Democratic Party, and now in the White House.
In explaining why his remark over the weekend wasn’t linking Obama to Hitler, Santorum said that “the World War II metaphor is one I’ve used a hundred times.” This is not an exaggeration — and that’s Santorum’s problem.But way back in a 2008 interview Santorum was already criticizing Obama's "liberal Christianity," saying he didn't believe that sort of ideology exists. That was the same year he gave his now infamous Satan speech at Ave Maria saying, "mainline Protestantism," which is in such "shambles," is not even Christian any longer."
This zealot has obviously had his marching orders for some time, so any denials that he is challenging Obama's faith is disingenuous at best. As Maureen Dowd writes, "Rick Santorum has been called a latter-day Savonarola. That's far too grand. He's more like a small-town mullah."
Even the sober-minded Mitt Romney, according to Avlon, has entered the "hyper-partisan" game:
. . . when Mitt was barnstorming through Florida, a standard part of his stump speech was this: "Sometimes I think we have a president who doesn't understand America." This line was straight out of the "Alien in the White House" playbook, a riff that reinforced the worst impulses of some in the audience, as one woman at a Romney rally named Katheryn Sarka eagerly reaffirmed when I asked her what she thought of the line: "Obama doesn't understand America. He follows George Soros. Obama is against our Constitution and our democracy."When Mitt gave his victory speech in Nevada, he said, "President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy." This isn't true, of course, but hey, if it works . . . .
Here's what's most troubling about this trend: It doesn't seem remarkable anymore. For the candidates and many in the press, it is just the new normal, the cost of doing business. The overheated rhetoric simply reflects the conversation that's been going on at the grassroots for a long time.During the as yet unfinished war on how contraception should be covered by insurance plans, Romney declared, “Unfortunately, possibly because of the people the president hangs around with, and their agenda, their secular agenda — they have fought against religion.”
Once this kind of rhetoric takes hold and becomes the "new normal," can we as a nation return to a time when there is a more civil playing field and where the contestants observe the rules of decency? Avlon doesn't hold out much hope.
It's naïve to think it will stop when Mr. Obama is no longer president, whether that is in one year or five. Because the next Republican president will inherit the political atmosphere that's been created and find that it is almost impossible to unite the nation absent a crisis. Some Democratic activists will no doubt take a tactical page from recent conservative successes. This cycle of incitement -- where extremes inflame and empower each other -- will make our politics more of an ideological bloodsport and less about actually solving problems.
Perspective is the thing we have least of in our politics these days. But perspective is what the presidency is all about -- rising above divisions and distractions to make long-term decisions in the national interest. By pouring gasoline on an already inflammatory political environment, the GOP presidential candidates not only diminish themselves, they diminish the process of running for president, and make it less likely that they would succeed in uniting the nation if they actually won the office.I don't think any of this radioactive rhetoric is a surprise to liberal bloggers as we have been observing and writing about it and what can only be described as the thug mentality on the part of the Tea Party element within the GOP since Obama took the oath of office.