A viewpoint by Cal Thomas: The politics of personal civility

February 08, 2001

He's only been in office a little more than two weeks, and already President George W. Bush has had members of the Kennedy clan over for eats and a movie, visited a ‘‘policy retreat'' (if it were only so) of Senate Democrats, named a Democrat to his Cabinet, quoted Martin Luther King Jr., invited the Congressional Black Caucus to the White House and told Republicans to turn the other cheek to Democrats who smeared John Ashcroft during his confirmation hearing.

To paraphrase Glen Campbell, that's a load of compromis'n on the road to Bush's horizon. Maybe it will work. Perhaps Bush will kill Democrats with kindness, softening them up so much that they will roll over and play dead. Or, more likely, they might use Bush's civility tour as a weapon against him. In politics, as Vince Lombardi said about football, winning isn't a sometime thing — it's the ONLY thing. For politicians, power is the trophy, not people praising your manners.


Republicans have suffered from low self-esteem since they won control of Congress in 1994. Instead of treating the Democratic Party as bankrupt of ideas, Republicans behave as if they're sorry they won. They're like too many recent Israeli governments, which have behaved apologetically for defending themselves against the genocidal policies of their neighbors.

While President Bush is making nice, Democrats are making plans. While Bush acts as peacemaker, Democrats are preparing for war. The new Democratic National Committee chairman, Terry McAuliffe, said last weekend, ‘‘We need to tell George W. Bush, ‘We're coming after you.''' McAuliffe added, ‘‘We are a unified party with a mission.''

And what might that mission be? McAuliffe says it is to turn the grievances some Democrats feel over the ‘‘stolen'' election into a rallying cry to take over all of government in 2004.

Politicians have traditionally practiced a politics directed at victory, not winning congeniality awards. Winston Churchill, a tough politician, observed, ‘‘Politics are almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war, you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.''

It is no sin to be killed in political combat but it's no place for conscientious objectors.

The Bush strategy may be about disarming his opponents, or at least convincing a few moderate-to-conservative Democrats to join him on some issues. If it works, he will deserve accolades from supporters of his policies. He just might divide and conquer. Democrats have been better at this than Republicans, often picking off moderates to join with them in opposing the initiatives of a GOP president or the party's congressional leadership.

We suffer in our politics, as in other things, from a desire to please, rather than a passion for truth. Pollsters search for a body of opinion to which politicians might conform, rather than the politicians searching their own minds and souls, saying what they believe and persuading the public to follow.

Thomas Jefferson said, ‘‘Politics, like religion, hold up the torches of martyrdom to the reformers of error.'' Most every contemporary politician has never seen an idea for which he or she would be willing to lay down his political life. Today's politicians are mostly into career self-preservation and a long life in Washington.

Democrats will not unilaterally disarm, nor should they. Democrats have as much right as Republicans to fully engage the political process with their ideas and tactics. But if Republicans conduct political warfare armed only with civility in the face of heavy Democratic artillery, it doesn't take a general to predict who will win that battle.

Bush's strategy may be inspired, or it may be naive. He may have learned from his father that being nice to people who want to take your job and power away means they will just have an easier time of it. Or, he may actually believe he can beat Democrat swords into plowshares.

When the first skirmish comes over the budget, or taxes, or especially a Supreme Court nominee, we will quickly discover what the president has in mind and whether it will work. If he continues to speak softly, he had better keep a big stick handy.

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