During the recent debt crisis, President Obama talked about the need for bipartisan compromise and, as in the past, he urged civility. Giving ground and engaging in polite discourse, of course, can be noble aims. But, like most one-eyed-jack politicians, Obama has rarely embraced the admirable qualities he advocates — a fact increasingly evident to a skeptical public.
In 2006, then-senator Obama voted against the Bush administration’s request to raise the debt ceiling — when the national debt was about 60 percent of what it is now. He did not show up for similar votes in 2007 and 2008. In that regard, Senate majority leader Harry Reid opposed every request when Republicans were in control of the Senate to raise the debt ceiling. Of course, such an unthinking party-line voter is exactly the sort of partisan senator or congressman that President Obama now deplores.
In fact, in 2007 the National Journal found that Obama’s voting record was the most partisan in the entire U.S. Senate — farther to the hard-line left than the Senate’s only self-described socialist, Bernie Sanders, and more predictably partisan than even the most consistently conservative senator that year, Jim DeMint. At the time, Senator Obama unapologetically wished to advance a hardcore liberal agenda, and he saw no reason to backtrack from it or compromise on it.
President Obama has repeatedly derided the sort of Republican partisanship that led the current minority party in the Senate to filibuster some of his appointments — most prominently his nomination of Goodwin Liu to the federal bench. But Senator Obama not long ago strongly advocated such partisan obstructionism; while out of power he praised the filibuster as much as he now deplores it while in power. Indeed, he joined a filibuster to deny votes on the nominations of both Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and John Bolton to the U.N. ambassadorship.
After the tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D., Ariz.), President Obama made yet another call for a new civility, urging us all to tone down our partisan rhetoric. But slash-and-burn talk is unfortunately the mother’s milk of politics — and no one knows that better than Chicago politician and apparent amnesiac Barack Obama, who as a state legislator, U.S. senator, and president has always excelled in the use of uncivil rhetoric and personal invective.
During the last three years, in almost every debate — deficit reduction, taxes, illegal immigration — Obama has smeared the motives of his political opponents. He suggested that critics of illegal immigration wished to add moats and alligators to help close the border and that they planned to arrest parents and children on their way to get ice cream. He advised that Latinos “should punish our enemies.” He accused opponents who wanted balanced budgets of abandoning children suffering from autism and Down syndrome.
Obama’s partisan rhetoric has always been rough. He called his political adversaries on taxes and the debt “hostage takers” who engaged in “hand-to-hand combat,” and needed to be relegated to the proverbial back seat. Obama even suggested that AIG executives were metaphorical terrorists: “They’ve got a bomb strapped to them and they’ve got their hand on the trigger.”
In an appeal to voters, Obama urged that they not act calmly, but get angry: “I don’t want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry!” The polarizing talk was the logical follow-up to his campaign hype of 2008, when he ridiculed the “clingers” of Pennsylvania, called on his supporters to confront his opponents and “get in their face,” and at one point even boasted, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” His jokes about Nancy Reagan and the Special Olympics were needlessly tasteless and crass.
Obama’s inflammatory language and tough metaphors are not all that unusual in the American political tradition. But what is odd is that a habitual participant in brass-knuckles political combat should call for the sort of civility that he himself did not and will not abide by.
We are now engaged in a continuing debate about debt, taxes, and spending. Both sides have vastly different ideas about how to solve our financial problems, and they will continue to embrace tough talk to win over public opinion to their respective sides. We hope for the best argumentation but expect the worst — democratic politics being what it is. And President Obama, the past master of bare-fisted partisan invective, knows that better than anyone.
So spare us any more of the bottled piety, Mr. President. Instead, just make the argument to the public that borrowing $4 billion a day is still necessary and sustainable — and explain how it came to be that this post-recession recovery on your watch is the weakest since World War II.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.