The Political High Road

by on June 29th, 2006

Political generosity is an endangered virtue these days. In an illustrative editorial Seth Swirsky examines President Bush’s track record in this regard, beginning in 2001 when he hosted Senator Edward Kennedy and his entire family at the White House for a screening of “13 Days,” the lionization of the Kennedy brothers’ handling of the Cuban Missile crisis. Mr. Bush also purposely included Sen. Kennedy on his “No Child Left Behind” educational reform bill.

How was this generosity repaid? Two years later Mr. Kennedy accused Mr. Bush of being a liar, arguing that he “cooked up the war [against Saddam] in Texas.”

Mr. Swirsky’s meta-analysis proceeds through a comprehensive litany of the president’s decency and the Democrats’ autonomic and vicious retaliatory responses. What’s going on here?

The author correctly concludes that the Democrats’ demeanor will directly contribute to the Republicans’ retention of Congress because, as he observes, “Americans prefer nice people, because they recognize that a thriving civilization requires civil people.”

Beyond that, this is a caustic indictment of a contemporary Democratic characteristic that began to coalesce when Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. Power, it has been observed, is a volatile phenomenon, and even in small doses it can cloud and corrupt otherwise sound judgment.

Protracted retention of power, which is what the Democrats “enjoyed” for nearly half a century, is perhaps the most intoxicating elixir, and on the battlefield of politics it breeds deep animosities and resentments. It is, indeed, the stuff that fuels the visceral revolutionary spirit that has led to such apparent miracles as the breakup of the evil empire known as the Soviet Union. Since assuming Congressional control and to their credit, Republicans have largely, though by no means completely, avoided that ignoble political instinct, revenge.

In contrast, when the Democrats lost what they considered to be their political birthright and assumed their places as Congressional backbenchers, the process of political combustion began. With every passing year since then it has expressed itself more intensely and, it’s fair to say, with less decency.

Besides fostering incivility, political marginalization can also lead to a sense of desperation because so much of the agenda is being controlled by the opposition. That inevitably leads to political miscalculation, overreach, and a willingness–or need–to take risks otherwise deemed imprudent.

That’s why we’re witnessing a migration to the left by historically moderate Democrats, one abetted by liberals on fringe; the result is the tectonic redefinition of “moderate,” a kind of political bracket creep such that historically moderate Democrats like Senator Joseph Lieberman are excoriated and threatened with political extinction for being “conservative.” In truth, Mr. Lieberman is liberal across the entire domestic front; it’s only his common sense approach to Iraq that has branded him with the scarlet ‘R.’

As a litmus test, if we could transport a Harry Truman or a Scoop Jackson into our era, we simply can’t imagine them charging Republicans with circumventing the law because of the NSA wiretap program, or, most recently, the financial records screening program, both of which are designed to identify terrorists and pre-empt their barbaric attacks.

Generosity of spirit is a virtue worth cultivating, even–perhaps especially–in the world of politics. Manifest as it is in the trait we call decency, it’s rapidly disappearing from the Democrats’ repertoire.

Americans of all political stripes understand that there are deep political and policy differences between the parties, and they recognize that each one has a rather different vision for our nation. That is a civically healthy formula for balance in governing.

But Americans recoil from acerbic, petty, and churlish behavior, as well they should. Unless the Democrats begin cultivating a sense of political decency, their fate in the fall elections, not to mention 2008, will be in real jeopardy.

Mella is Founder and Editor of

Philip Mella