An attempt to assassinate at least 14 of President Donald Trump’s most prominent critics did not succeed, thank God. But this direct attack on our democracy also failed to move Missouri GOP Senate nominee Josh Hawley to so much as tweak his portrayal of violent political rhetoric and actions in this country as an exclusively Democratic phenomenon.
At his final debate with Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill, both candidates were asked whether voters deserve better than the current sub-basement level of discourse. Absolutely, said Hawley. “You hear leaders of the Democrat Party like Hillary Clinton saying that you can’t be civil with people you disagree with. You have Eric Holder, another Democrat leader, saying the new Democrat Party kicks people they disagree with. When you see these mobs popping up in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings. The screaming, the shouting, driving people out of restaurants, confronting them, this is terrible ... I am disappointed that the Democrat Party seems to have embraced this.”
Let’s see, why were Clinton and Holder in the news in recent days? Oh yes, for having bombs sent to them. Yet in a protracted back-and-forth over incendiary words, neither Hawley nor McCaskill ever mentioned incendiary devices.
Hawley does have a point, up to a point: I could not disagree more with Clinton’s remark to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about. That’s why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again. But until then, the only thing that the Republicans seem to recognize and respect is strength.”
She misapprehends both civility and strength in casting them as incompatible and misses that it’s not possible to restore your values by abandoning your values. Civility, which requires enormous stubbornness as well as moral fortitude, is not some luxury that can be put off until a later, more convenient day. It doesn’t work that way, and that she doesn’t know that is telling.
Holder was also wrong to have turned former fIrst lady Michelle Obama’s out-of-fashion wisdom on its head when he said, “When they go low, we kick ‘em. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.” Then he explained that, “When I say we, you know, ‘We kick ‘em,’ I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal. But we got to be tough, and we have to fight for the very things that John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, you know, all those folks gave to us.” If Holder didn’t realize that only the first part of what he said would be widely quoted, he’s not as smart as I thought he was.
But for Hawley to single out two out-of-power Democrats who could have been killed this week while pretending not to notice the daily rhetorical grenades lobbed by the sitting president in his own party was bold even for a candidate who excels at keeping a straight face.
When McCaskill got her turn to answer the question about whether voters deserve better, she said, “There are people being ugly on both sides. This isn’t a time to blame one party or the other. This is a time to turn down the temperature.”
Though that ought to be obvious, her opponent showed no inclination to respond in kind. Those who feel Hawley’s “admit nothing” approach ought to be emulated rather than discredited must have been shouting, “See what unilateral disarmament gets you?”
Here’s what: “Look at what happened with the Brett Kavanaugh hearing,” Hawley said. “And yes, I’m afraid Senator it was one side who launched a personal smear campaign. It was Hillary Clinton and Eric Holder who’ve encouraged confrontation, if not violence.”
To claim this while ignoring that encouraging cheers of “lock her up!” and dreaming up potential excuses for the murder of a Washington Post journalist is some world-class cynicism. And that Hawley said it even as the FBI was closing in on the “MAGA bomber” charged with sending explosives to Clinton and Holder took an extra measure of gall.
Yet the same tribal, whataboutist rationalizations that got us here aren’t ever going to show us the way out. Neither will Hawley, McCaskill, Trump or Clinton, for that matter. So who might?
You, if and when you care to. When voters stop rewarding dishonesty, candidates will stop being disingenuous. But that will only happen when we start expecting more instead of accepting less all the time. That will only happen when the answer to the question that began the debate, about whether voters deserve better, is no longer that no, they don’t seem to think they do.