Pres. Barack Obama delivered hi s loviest speech as president in Tucson, Ariz., after the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords. It was moving, pitch-perfect and — in its key passages calling for civility in our political discourse — brazenly insincere.
Obama said we should be sure that “we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” He framed his call as a way to honor the victims of the Tucson tragedy: “Only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.”
Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa must have been too busy watching old episodes of The Sopranos that night. In a warm-up act for the president’s rally the other day in Detroit, Hoffa unloosed a witless, stereotypically crude tirade standing at a podium about to be affixed with a presidential seal and graced by the presence of the Master of Civility himself.
Hoffa told the rally that the Tea Party had declared “war on workers,” but told his listeners that organized labor likes “a good fight.” He thundered: “They got a war with us and there’s only going to be one winner.” He assured President Obama that “this is your army,” and urged the crowd to vote: “Let’s take these son of a bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong [sic].”
This passage is so hot in tone and freighted with martial imagery that had Sarah Palin uttered it, MSNBC would preempt its usual prison documentaries to do 24-hour coverage of the supposed incitement to violence. But President Obama took the stage shortly afterward with nary a word about Hoffa’s rant, and the White House has refused to condemn it. Perhaps the president gave the unions a secret waiver from his injunctions to civility?
Of course, the summons to civility was never intended as a bipartisan initiative. Born of a smear of the Right as somehow responsible for the crimes of the lunatic who shot Giffords, it was a handy way to try to delegitimize conservatives and mute their voices. Soon after Tucson, liberal protesters in Madison, Wis., were lambasting Republican officeholders in rancorous terms and even threatening them, without anyone’s standing up for civility. When Giffords returned to Washington at the end of the debt debate to cast her first vote since the shooting, it was in an atmosphere thick with liberal accusations that Republicans were “terrorists” and “hostage-takers.”
When he extolled civility nine months ago, President Obama didn’t count on his political base’s becoming more enraged than ever, or on his own desperation as president of a country with 9.1 percent unemployment. The most elemental act of civility is assuming the sincerity and patriotism of your opposition. President Obama’s latest theme is that Republicans are putting party before country in opposing his program, an argument that implicitly rules out the possibility that they genuinely think his policies are foolhardy and worthy of opposition. It’s a kidney punch masked as high-mindedness.
Unless the economy rebounds suddenly, President Obama will be left with only one option next year — winning ugly. He will have to make his opponent even more unacceptable than he is, and if the past is any guide, he’ll do it without scruple. All Obama’s promises about process are highly conditional. He jettisoned his support for the public funding of campaigns in 2008 as soon as it became clear he could raise $750 million. He sloughed off “post-partisanship” when he had the congressional majorities necessary to ram through major legislation on a partisan basis. And now he’s saying goodbye to civility, too.
So be it. If civility is a good in its own right, the functioning of our big, unruly democracy has never depended on it. It will survive Hoffa’s ham-handed metaphors and Obama’s hypocrisy. But next time, Mr. President, please spare us the pose and the lectures.
—Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.