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Challenge, With Civility

Tuesday night on Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier, Charles Krauthammer said this:

Unless there is something in [Judge Sotomayor’s] past explosive that nobody knows about, she is going to end up on the court. I think what Republicans ought to do is talk about judicial philosophy. It should be high-toned, not ad hominem, and not personal.

Contrast Krauthammer’s counsel with this report from ABC News:

Just a day after President Obama announced he was nominating appellate court judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the battle over her confirmation has begun with former House speaker Newt Gingrich branding her a racist and saying she should withdraw. The accusations are aimed at comments Sotomayor made during a 2001 lecture at the University of California-Berkeley. Referring to former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s saying that “a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases,” Sotomayor said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” On Wednesday afternoon, Gingrich wrote on Twitter: “Imagine a judicial nominee said ‘my experience as a white man makes me better than a Latina woman’ new racism is no better than old racism.” “White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw,” Gingrich wrote.

I’m very much in Krauthammer’s camp on this. I recognize, of course, that there is a double standard at play — one for conservatives and one for liberals. And I have real problems with Sotomayor’s views, including her statement about Latina women v. white males. It is entirely appropriate to criticize those comments and Judge Sotomayor’s decisions. But that is quite different, I think, from calling her a racist and insisting that she should withdraw. As a general matter, I think the term “racist” is thrown around far too promiscuously and carelessly.

This rhetorical approach is nothing new to Gingrich. Less than two weeks ago, in response to Speaker Pelosi’s assertion that the CIA lied to her about enhanced interrogation techniques, Gingrich said this:

I think this is the most despicable, dishonest and vicious political effort I’ve seen in my lifetime. She is a trivial politician, viciously using partisanship for the narrowist [sic] of purposes, and she dishonors the Congress by her behavior.

In my judgment, Pelosi deserved to be criticized, in very strong terms, for what she said. But I think the tone of Gingrich’s criticism is harmful, both to political discourse in general and to his party in particular. Strong, spirited, even passionate debate can be useful, and even important, in the life of a nation. But civility and decency are vital as well. And as Noemie Emery pointed out in her excellent Weekly Standard article, “Reagan in Opposition: The Lessons of 1977,” “his tone was unfailingly gracious and civil, and focused on issues, not men. He did not oppose for the sake of opposing. He criticized Carter’s ideas, but seldom the man, and he almost never uttered the president’s name.”

Reagan sought to persuade people, not annihilate them. His arguments were forceful; his restraint, admirable. And of course the model for Republicans is Lincoln, the country’s greatest President, of whom it was said at the time, “The sledge hammer effect of his speech results from the … force of the argument of the logician, not the fierce gestures and loud rantings of the demagogue.”

It is unfair to hold up Reagan, and certainly Lincoln, as standard-bearers who are within easy reach of the rest of us. None of us measure up to either man. And in the modern age, with blogs, twitter, and all the rest, it is easy to write in an unfiltered way, to send things out that one would like to have back. Still, we need to stay on the right side of the line when it comes to public discourse. Reagan and Lincoln are models we should continue to look up to, and emulate.



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