Thursday, October 9, 2008
Divide and Conquer or Unite and Govern?
We have moved in the presidential election campaign from the silly season to the savage season. Personal attacks are becoming more numerous and more malicious. I am frankly disappointed because I had genuine hopes that campaigns of the high road would be waged by these two men. While I am disappointed, I am not surprised, since when you get right down to it the main thing that politicians want is to win and so when their backs are against the wall they will do whatever it takes to attain victory.
Methods matter, though, because the cost of those methods matters and the cost of a campaign that is designed to divide so as to conquer is a further divided nation.
Sen. McCain sincerely believes that he would be a better president that Sen. Obama; Sen. Obama sincerely believes that he would be a better president than Sen. McCain. If they didn’t believe that they would not put themselves through the rigors of a presidential campaign. I am sure that both men believe that they have the best interests of the nation at heart in their positions and in their policies. I am sure that both candidates love America and want what they believe is best for America.
But if Sens. Obama and McCain really love and want what is best for America they should agree to an absolute moratorium on personal attacks for the remainder of this presidential campaign. Not only should they refrain from such attacks themselves but they should instruct their campaign associates and surrogates, including their running mates and their advertising staffs, to immediately cease and desist from personal attacks and derogatory remarks. They should immediately fire anyone who violates that moratorium.
While the candidates could not control what PACs or other groups do in their ads, if any such ad contains a personal attack the candidate favored by the ad should as a matter of policy disavow it.
I’m not naïve; I realize that such attacks have always been a component of presidential politics. A few years ago I read John Ferling’s excellent book Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800; that campaign was vicious and had those rivals had television and the internet at their disposal there’s no telling what they would have done.
Still, the critical nature of these days necessitates a different approach. We are a seriously divided nation. The economic strain under which we are all living will only serve to exacerbate the social, racial, philosophical, and religious divides that already separate us from one another even within our states that the media so readily characterize as “blue” or “red.” We need our presidential candidates to run the kind of campaign that will move us toward greater unity and not drive a larger wedge between us. We are going through a very challenging time in our country and we will need all of the good will and cooperation that we can find.
My point is that one of these two candidates is going to be, come noon on January 20, 2009, the President of the United States. His job—his task—his responsibility—his calling—will be to govern the United States of America, not the red states of America or the blue states of American, not the conservatives of America or the liberals of America, not the religious folks of America or the non-religious folks of America, and not the poor folks of America or the rich folks of America. His task will be to govern this nation that includes all those folks and so many more.
We need more unity in these United States. How can a President govern in ways that promote unity and cooperation in overcoming the obstacles before us when he has campaigned in ways that promote disunity and antagonism among us?
How, you might ask, do personal attacks in a campaign foster the kind of disunity that will make it more difficult for the new president to govern?
Let’s face it—diehard Democrats are going to vote for Obama while diehard Republicans are going to vote for McCain, no matter what. When those folks hear a personal attack on the opposing candidate they smile and cheer and have their bias confirmed and when they hear one on their candidate they frown and jeer and have their bias confirmed. And most of those folks will not support the presidency of the other candidate should he win even should that person bring about peace in the Middle East, find a just and productive way to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, end poverty as we know it, and develop an endless replacement for oil, all during his first week in office.
But there are those of us who really and truly just want America to be the best country it can be. We will vote our convictions but we will, to the best of our ability, support the new president whoever it is and we will pray that he will lead us to deal with our problems creatively and with a desire for justice for all. But when such Americans hear continued and vicious attacks on the character and motives of the candidates, how can they help but have the seeds of distrust planted? And while we certainly all ought to keep our eyes open and not follow blindly the leadership of any person, how can it help our nation and the efforts of the new president if a huge portion of the population does not trust him?
In other words, the presidential candidates have a responsibility to this nation that goes far beyond winning or losing the election. They have the responsibility to campaign in such a way that they will promote the health and wellbeing of the nation; they have the responsibility to campaign in such a way that the other candidate, should he win, does not enter the White House crippled by the campaign; they have the responsibility to campaign in such a way that, whoever wins, the nation is poised to rally behind our new leader to work together to face what we must face.
Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama have a choice—will they campaign so as to divide and conquer or will they campaign so as to unite and govern?