Between Pope Francis’s visit and House Speaker John Boehner’s announcement that he would step down next month we got quite a lesson last week in grace and gracelessness.
The pope brought humility and genuine concern for the poor to Congress. The punditocracy soon reduced it to another round of partisan one-upmanship. (He talked about the environment, so take that, conservatives! Ha — he mentioned the family, so stick that in your pipe, liberals!) Clearly these people missed the point — and did not have the self-restraint to keep their obsessive partisanship to themselves.
Boehner, R-Ohio, is leaving office in an effort to lance the boil in the House, keep the government open and try to remove himself as a bone of contention in 2016. In return, the perpetually smug Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., reveled in the triumph of destructiveness. The evangelical gathering at the inaptly named Value Voters Summit (isn’t moderation a value? tolerance? gratitude for Boehner’s 25 years of service?) cheered loudly when they heard the news of Boehner’s political demise in a moment that made a mockery of the Golden Rule. People, this was a values summit, not a rudeness marathon. Donald Trump, the master of the insult who despises civility, also applauded Boehner’s departure. At least the audience booed when Trump called Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a “fool.”
The left was no better — trashing Boehner for “leaving” the House high and dry and complaining he should have “done something” about his implacable members. (What precisely would bring gadfly Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tex., back to reality?) Liberals forget it was the president who walked away from the Grand Bargain and continually inflamed matters by, among other things, abusing executive power.
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The sheer gracelessness of all these people is depressing, but hardly surprising. The media and political class, not to mention social media users, for years have been taking a sledgehammer to what we might call — how quaint! — good manners. Respect for others, graciousness in defeat and magnanimity in victory, sublimation of ego to the greater good — these essential components of civilized behavior are practically extinct in the political realm.
The more self-satisfied the purist (e.g. talk-radio hosts), the more crass is their rhetoric. The more extreme the position, the more certain its proponents are of everyone else’s bad motives. Cruz has invented a “cartel” (e.g. sane Republicans elected by voters to accomplish practical gains) to describe his enemies — and those are just the Republican ones. Ben Carson, who is supposedly infused with high-minded virtue and guided by Christian faith, stirs the anti-Muslim pot while smearing his country as akin to Nazi Germany. And, as George Will writes, Trump’s big idea is “turning the United States into a police state in order to facilitate ethnic cleansing.” You do understand why respect for politicians and the MSM is low. Perhaps Americans are not critical enough of these antics.
Voters may be sorely tempted to say a “pox on both their houses” and literally tune out of the political debate. That however would be ceding ground to the nastiest, shrillest and most irresponsible voices. Maybe it is time for pendulum to swing back.
Republican primary voters can begin by rejecting the obnoxious candidates. Democratic primary voters and pundits can begin by sending Hillary Clinton, who learned to smear opponents back when she was dodging scandals in the 1990s, back to Chappaqua, N.Y. House members who should know better can begin by isolating and shunning the bomb throwers in the GOP conference and by voting for — and then standing by — decent leaders. Viewers and listeners can tune out the hate mongers, rejecting cynical attempts to inflame them and vilify dissenters from their particular strain of political extremism.
The current lowly state of discourse and the most cynical brand of politics do not have to endure. Perhaps a new speaker, a new president and a new Democratic minority leader in the Senate will decide we can do better, starting a trend to raise our collective rhetoric.
I would say “We could hardly do worse,” but I’m afraid we could and will.
Ms. Rubin writes reported opinion from a conservative perspective; follow her on Twitter @JRubinBlogger.