The XX Factor

Can Strident Political Discourse Be Modified With Honesty?

Congressman Bob Inglis, a conservative Republican from South Carolina who lost his seat during the primaries, has been lamenting his party’s turn toward “demagoguery” since last summer, but he is getting more traction since the Republican sweep of the U.S. House in last month’s midterm elections. Lately he has been making the rounds on television and radio news shows and talking bluntly about why he lost. Despite a 93 rating from the American Conservative Union, he says he was punished for not being sufficiently extreme in his conservatism and for not forcefully bashing President Obama. He ran into trouble with his state’s Tea Party leadership when he refused to call the president a socialist and urged his constituents to stop watching Glenn Beck.

I heard him on NPR the day after the election and thought he sounded reasonable enough, but when I saw him on CNN’s Parker Spitzer last Friday, I was even more impressed by his honesty and levelheadedness while discussing his strong disagreement with Obama’s policies and his refusal to demonize the president, as fellow Republicans trying to gain favor with Tea Party voters have done.

Said Parker:  “I’ve been talking about this for months. Writing about it. You know, the GOP, the Republican Party, now has this sort of purity ideal pushed by the Tea Party. If you’re not 100 percent conservative, then you’re not good enough to be in office.”

Here’s some of what Inglis had to say :

INGLIS: Yes, you know, really, if you boil it right down, what it’s a lot about is just the sense that I didn’t join in the real bitterness toward the president. You know, I don’t call him a socialist because he’s not. I don’t doubt where – that he was born in Hawaii because he was.

I don’t call him a Muslim because he says he’s a Christian. And I didn’t say anything about death panels because there weren’t any death panels in that health care bill. So I believe you’re going to lead a credible conservative movement, you’ve got to start with credible information.

And if you try to sell people on this scapegoat and say it’s the president’s fault that we’ve got a structural deficit, well, how could that be? He’s been in office two years. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security have been around for decades. So how could it possibly be his fault?

The reality is, the president is a handsome, articulate, brilliant fella. I just disagree with him on a lot of policy issues. But I don’t need to join in this hatred of the man. What I need to do is just say, we have better ideas.

I’m a conservative with better ideas. And I can serve the country by presenting those ideas and being credible, not attacking him. But, you know, it’s – remember, Bill Clinton said one year at a prayer breakfast, the most violated commandment in Washington, D.C. is the ninth. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

And I think there’s an awful lot of that going on right now.

PARKER: Can you give us an instance where you actually felt pressure to do that, to turn on the president and say things that – you know, to bear false witness, in other words?

INGLIS: Yes, for example, I had a breakfast gathering about 25 people there. The guy stands up and he says, the president is so unpatriotic, he doesn’t even put his hand over his heart when the national anthem is played or when the pledge is recited.

And I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, I know what I need to do if I want to win this primary, I’m supposed to say, well, what do you expect out of a socialist? Or, you know, somebody not born in America.

But I just couldn’t, wouldn’t. And so I just said, you know, that’s just not true. I’ve been with the president. I’ve seen him put his hand over his heart. It’s just not true. The man is a patriotic American who loves the country, loves his wife, loves his kids. Afterwards, they – and I went on to say, but I just disagree with him. But after this a Republican operative came up to me and said, don’t give him that.

SPITZER: You know –
INGLIS: That he’s a patriotic American.
PARKER: Don’t give the president that?

INGLIS: Yes, and of course I’m thinking, how are we going to get to these hard things? Like I was just complimenting Paul Ryan on having a great plan for fixing Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security.

How are we going to get to that if we’re embroiled in this mosh pit where we maul each other about whether he’s a socialist and a secret Muslim and a whatever? When what we should be saying is, listen, you disagree with him. We conservatives have better ideas that will really work. But we don’t need to attack him as a person and we don’t need to drag the country down in all that negative kind of – disastrous kind of mauling of one another.

What’s interesting about Inglis’ comments is how lacking in bitterness they are, and how true they are. What passes for political discourse these days is beyond mauling, it is rhetoric steeped in aggressive, patently dishonest, hateful language that aims to completely take down political opponents – by any means necessary. Politicians and political operatives of all stripes do it, but the rise of the Tea Party has raised this type of political bashing into an art form. What is most distressing is not that so many politicians are willing to stoop to it in order to win elections but that so few are willing to stand against it for fear of losing.

Now that Rep. Inglis won’t be in Congress come January, maybe he’ll have more time on his hands to start a different kind of national dialogue, one far different from the nasty Town Hall meetings and Tea Party rallies we witnessed during the debate over health care, or even the nightly partisan exchanges between political pundits on cable news programs. Maybe he can get us all talking and acting like dignified adults again.