Another debate – another wound to the presidency

23 Feb

Ready to wrestle, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum went after each other last night over spending, taxes and congressional in the 20th and possibly final debate of the roller-coaster race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Wouldn’t that be nice.

One wonders if all these debates helped any GOP candidate or just pointed out how weak the field really is.

Polls are showing that President Obama would defeat any of the four remaining Republican contenders in a hypothetical matchup.

They also find the nation is showing more optimism about the state of the economy, the dominant issue in the race.

After a brief lull, the campaign calendar calls for 13 primaries and caucuses between next Tuesday, when Arizona and Michigan have primaries, and March 6, a 10-state Super Tuesday.

We think there has been heavy cost from the rhetoric that’s been thrown out to excite the conservative crowds.

It’s not just that the most irresponsible candidates play to the base and get a boost in the polls, while more sober-minded candidates like Jon Huntsman fail to get attention.

The real damage is to the process of running for president itself.

Because when low blows get rewarded, the incentive to hold yourself to a higher standard is diminished.

And one measure of this shift is in the increasingly overheated rhetoric by candidates attacking the current president.

This disrespect ends up diminishing the office of president itself.

Sure, politics is a full-contact sport.

Elbows get thrown and egos get bruised.

But ask yourself if Ronald Reagan ever called Jimmy Carter a socialist or a communist on the stump.

There were deep philosophical and policy disagreements between them, and Carter was called a failed president many times.

But there was a respect for the office that kept a bit of dignity.

It was only the far-right fringe who indulged in the kind of rhetoric we now hear routinely from presidential candidates.

The truth also falls to the wayside.

A month ago, when a Rick Santorum supporter accused President Obama of being “an avowed Muslim” who “constantly says that our Constitution is passé” and “has no legal right to be calling himself president” – Santorum did nothing to correct her.

Instead, he said afterwards, “I don’t feel it’s my obligation every time someone says something I don’t agree with to contradict them.”

Standing up for the truth in the face of unhinged hate is part of a potential president’s job.

Four years ago, at the height of the general election, when a supporter called then-candidate Obama an “Arab,” John McCain corrected her, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man … (a) citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

That’s the voice of a loyal opposition, a decent person putting patriotism above partisanship.

That’s missing now – from all the GOP candidates.

Sadly, it doesn’t seem remarkable anymore.

For the candidates and many in the press, it is just the new normal, the cost of doing business.

They say the overheated rhetoric simply reflects the conversation that’s been going on at the grassroots for a long time.

Here’s the danger:

You’d have to be naïve to think it will stop when Obama is no longer president, whether that is one year or five.

The next Republican president will inherit the political atmosphere they helped create and find that it is almost impossible to unite the nation without some crisis.

Perspective is the thing we have least of in our politics these days.

But perspective is what the presidency is all about – rising above divisions and distractions to make long-term decisions in the national interest.

By pouring gasoline on an already inflammatory political environment, the GOP presidential candidates not only diminish themselves, they diminish the process of running for president, and make it less likely that they would succeed in uniting the nation if they actually won the office.

Our opinion.

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