On Wednesday morning, another email missive from American Crossroads appeared in my inbox. It announced the unleashing of three television ads pummeling President Obama, all running for a week in Ohio. I watched each, and wondered how the president and his allies might respond.
That is why these “negative” ads are so valuable to campaigns. If they move votes, and they usually do, they get the job done by drawing contrasts and defining the choice. Sure, they can go too far, even backfire at times. That, too, says something about the candidate or organization peddling the message.
Count me among those unhappy with the Citizens United ruling, such big money in the dark, inviting questions about its corrupting influence. At the same time, voters benefit from a vigorous debate. Provoke a candidate, and he or she and friends are more likely to respond with a revealing and full-throated defense, the back and forth now in gear.
All of this isn’t to abandon the cause of greater civility in our political life. Rather, it is to suggest where civility really matters — to identify what is missing in our polarized era.
I am less concerned with candidates exchanging insults and barbs on the campaign trail. That has been happening for many decades, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson conducting a most vicious campaign. What has changed is the aftermath of the race, when the governing is supposed to begin.
The test of civility is the capacity of the elected to compartmentalize. Will they put aside the fighting words, respect the results and look to build compromise to promote a larger cause? The examples are legion of those who have done so. John Seiberling could be withering in his criticism of Republicans, yet he also worked effectively with the other side. Ronald Reagan ridiculed Democrats like few others have. Tip O’Neill returned the favor. What endures about their relationship is the deal-making.
Add Stanley Aronoff, Vern Riffe and George Voinovich of the Statehouse to the list.
All appreciated the place of cajoling, persuading, cultivating relationships. (Someday, I may need that guy!) This was the challenge, even the joy, of the job. They ran tough ads, and then honored the first principle of governing: compromise.
— MICHAEL DOUGLAS
Editorial page editor