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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

On Civility

One of the oddest and most interesting post-election kerfuffles has been the well-reported encounter between George W. Bush and Senator-elect from Virginia Jim Webb last week. In case you missed it, Bush asked Webb how his son, currently serving in Iraq, was doing, and Webb promptly responded, echoing a major theme of his campaign, that he’d like to get him and his comrades home soon. Bush bristled and said, “That’s not what I asked you,” and apparently Webb bristeled in response.According to the New York Times column linked to above, presidential scholar Stephen Hess thought Webb had violated protocol by answering Bush’s question honestly. A phalanx of lefty bloggers not only defended Webb, but suggested anything other than plenary disrespect for Bush would have violated their own sense of protocol.For what it’s worth, here’s where I come down on the general subject of civility towards political enemies. I do think us political compatants tend to forget that Americans generally agree on a whole lot of things that are violently controversial in many parts of the world: democratic elections, a regulated capitalist economy, a system of protections of basic liberties, and an international regime that aims at liberal democracy, just to name a few. You can argue, as I have myself, that Republicans don’t fully respect these communal values, but that’s not the same as suggesting they aren’t communal values to begin with.That’s why, despite my own deep antipathy for Bush and his party, I don’t like attacks on them that rely on analogies to the Nazis, the fascists, or other enemies of the American system, or suggest that every single administration policy, and everyone who agrees with it, are inherently corrupt or evil.But in the case of the Webb encounter, Bush raised a particular subject, and Webb responded appropriately. Residual respect for the underlying American Consensus does not require specific respect for particular policies of the Ruling Party. When those policies enganger your own son, no father can be faulted for telling the simple truth, even, or perhaps especially, in the presence of the Commander in Chief.

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