Some in Congress respond to Obama’s call for civility
In his analysis of President Obama’s eulogy for the dead and wounded in Tucson, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said, “If you listened to what candidate Obama was saying, he often came back to a central theme: Our political system is mired in trench warfare, along battle lines that were established decades ago. We will only be able to move forward if we get beyond the arbitrary and obsolete divisions that keep us at one another’s throats.”
Colorado Sen. Mark Udall addressed this same issue in his call for an end to the custom of dividing Congress by party at the State of the Union speech.
From a different perspective, John McCain, showing the character that marked his best years in the Senate, made a parallel case for more civility and less rancor in the Senate.
The two statements converge in a compelling call for Congress to rethink how it does business.
“Beyond custom, there is no rule or reason that on this night (of the State of the Union Address) we should emphasize divided government, separated by party, instead of being seen united as a country,” Udall wrote to the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House.
“The choreographed standing and clapping of one side of the room — while the other side sits — is unbecoming of a serious institution. And the message that it sends is that even on a night when the president is addressing the entire nation, we in Congress cannot sit as one, but must be divided as two.”
Though it may be only for one night, Udall’s proposal would “get Congress beyond the arbitrary and obsolete divisions that keep us at one another’s throats.” As Udall concluded his letter, “Perhaps by sitting with each other for one night we will begin to rekindle that common spirit that brought us here from 50 different states and widely divergent backgrounds to serve the public good.”
An early supporter of Udall’s plan, John McCain said Obama’s Tucson speech “encouraged every American who participates in our political debates ... to aspire to a more generous appreciation of one another and a more modest one of ourselves.”
McCain responded with a call for more civility in public discourse, including his own pledge to do better. “Our political discourse should be more civil than it currently is, and we all, myself included, bear some responsibility for it not being so,” he wrote.
It is to McCain’s credit that he is the only member of Congress willing to acknowledge his own contribution to the overheated rhetoric that helped polarize the parties. While he acknowledged, “It probably asks too much of human nature to expect any of us to be restrained at all times ... from committing rhetorical excesses that exaggerate our differences and ignore our similarities. But I do not think it is beyond our ability and virtue to refrain from substituting character assassination for spirited and respectful debate.”
McCain was one of the first Republicans to sign on to Udall’s letter, recognizing their common interest in bringing a more civil tone to Congress.
Udall’s proposal quickly gained support in the Senate from both parties. Sen. Lisa Murkowski signed on as co-sponsor, followed by McCain and several others. By Monday, 22 senators, about one third of whom are Republicans, had signed on to the letter.
Other senators, like Tom Coburn, R-Okla. and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., have indicated support for the plan, though they have not signed the letter. Senate party leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are said to be considering the proposal. Even the White House called it “interesting.”
The House has shown less interest in signing Udall’s letter. Only nine representatives, all Democrats, have signed it. However, there are indications that a push for civility may be happening there as well.
If Obama’s State of the Union speech inspires Congress to conduct debate “in a way that heals, not a way that wounds” the president will demonstrate that “we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.”
That is change we can believe in.