TO: MESSERS Toomey, Casey, Brady, Fattah, Meehan, Gerlach, Fitzpatrick and Runyon. Will you agree to live by these words in 2011?
"I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it."
So reads a 32-word civility pledge circulated in 2010 by Lanny Davis, a liberal lawyer and longtime Hillary Clinton confidante, and Mark DeMoss, a conservative public relations executive and author. You'd think it about as controversial as the Hippocratic Oath. Yet when Davis and DeMoss sent their pledge to all 535 members of Congress and 50 governors earlier this year, just two signed on.
That Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., were the lone members of their respective bodies to endorse an oath to - gasp! - be respectful is the latest evidence of the vile state of political discourse in this country.
I'm all for the type of hard-nosed, aggressive and civil political discussion that Davis and DeMoss are hoping to promote. And I applauded the dozens of former elected officials who sent a letter to literally every congressional candidate throughout the country this year, imploring them to remain open to compromise should they earn a trip to Washington.
I just think these sort of efforts need to expand the Rolodex, or Internet address book. They should have been signed, sealed and delivered to talk-radio hosts and cable-television pundits, too. Elected officials may be the only agents of intolerance directly accountable to the people. But they do not represent the root of this country's incivility problem.
Rather, the vicious cycle begins with the 24/7 media beast that boils every issue down to a liberal-conservative, left-right, red-state-blue-state shout-fest and plants it on a split screen. At some point, listeners and viewers became conditioned to view politics only through one or the other of those diametrically opposed worldviews. Anything in between - moderation, pragmatism, whatever you want to call it - is now seen as the domain of the weak-kneed.
Politicians and candidates, sensing the increased polarization among voters and desperate for media attention, have become all too eager to play along. And unfortunately, they've taken to treating their colleagues in Congress like a pundit expressing the opposing view. The near-universal yawn that the civility pledge evoked from its recipients is the cycle's latest incarnation. I spoke to Davis and DeMoss recently, and each expressed concern that so many politicos passed on the pledge because they feared being at a disadvantage come Election Day. Davis said that he thinks incumbents viewed signing on as a form of "unilateral disarmament." DeMoss acknowledged the "sad misconception about this, the idea that if I agree to be civil, I'll somehow have to go through a re-election campaign with my hands behind my back and masking tape over my mouth."
Which is absurd, of course. Nobody is asking politicians or candidates to surrender their convictions or ideologies. To ask for spirited and civil debate isn't to bow at the altar of political correctness.
Rather, it's an acknowledgement that shouting down the president in front of the entire world or bellowing that Republicans want you to "die quickly" doesn't advance anything. The country is depending on its elected leaders to jumpstart a faltering economy, manage two wars, and ease debts and deficits. What it gets is enough nastiness on talk radio and cable TV to fill an entire montage for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
It's especially dangerous as Washington enters what will likely be a two-year period of even tighter political gridlock and tension. Coming up with solutions is going to require somebody to reach across the aisle at some point. It's important to remind politicians that compromise isn't a dirty word – but even more important to drown out the talk-radio hosts and cable-television pundits that would make a living vilifying them for it.
So, as a person who has the privilege of weilding both a pen and microphone, I commit to living to the civility pledge above in 2011, and I welcome any reader who will hold me accountable if I fail.
And if any member of our local delegation to Washington is willing to sign, I will be pleased to make their feelings known.
Contact Michael Smerconish via the Web at www.smerconish.com. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer.