Bill Cunningham, the conservative talk radio host from Cincinnati who repeatedly invoked Barack Obama’s middle name of “Hussein” in a warm-up speech for a McCain campaign rally, complains that he got “thrown under the Straight Talk Express” by the candidate. So, Cartman-like, he’s going away and joining Ann Coulter and a few other right-wing kool-aid drinkers in their pretzel-logic support of Hillary Clinton. Thing is, McCain deserves praise for trying to focus the debate on the merits of the various candidates rather than scurrilous rumors, innuendo, and outright lies. Throw Cunningham under the bus, gain points in my book.
What’s more, no less a right-wing political icon of kidney-stabbing attacks than Karl Rove has warned conservatives to not demagogue about Obama’s middle name. Rove rightly perceives that simply making fun of Obama’s name will do nothing but perpetuate the myth, that moderate voters are perfectly ready to buy into if they see any evidence for it, that conservatives are bigots. Suggesting that Obama is anything other than what he has proven himself to be — a devout Christian and an American who has dedicated his life to public service of the nation — is a very dangerous game that in all probability will end badly for Republicans.
Perhaps, then, the McCain candidacy will be good for the Republican party in another way, in that it will provide a way for the most foul-tempered spewers of bile to be purged out. Some of the far right will go with them, and a degree of fanatical enthusiasm will leave the party as a result. But at the same time, the party can reach into the moderate middle, that growing segment at the top of the bell curve of American politics who yet have reservations about the neo-collectivism proffered by the standard bearers of the Democratic party and vote Democrat only because they are so very repelled by these fountains of vitriol who hold themselves out to be the spokespeople for a vast segment of conservative Americans. No one in the moderate middle wants to get in bed with Ann Coulter or Lars Larsen. But centrists can be persuaded to look again at Republican ideas if Republicans show themselves to be principled enough to police their own as well as others for minimal standards of human decency.
When even Karl Rove is suggesting that a measure of civility is to the conservatives’ tactical advantage, that’s as clear a sign as anyone should need that the rhetoric has escalated beyond a critical point.
Yesterday, I offered a brief eulogy for Bill Buckley, in which the focus of my praise was on his ability to bring erudition and civility to political debate — and for which he was rightfully recognized as the paterfamilias of the conservative movement. I’ve no doubt that Buckley would have shied away from referring to the Democratic front-runner as anything other than “Senator Obama” or “Mister Obama” and would have been repelled at the idea of using the man’s name (something he did not choose for himself) to imply disloyalty to America. Buckley would have been quick to concede that Obama was a faithful Christian and a talented politician with good intentions. But note that one can concede that Obama has dedicated himself to the service of the country, even if his policy ideas are not particularly agreeable to the person making that concession. Note that one can concede that he is a Christian even if one might not like some of the things his pastor has said in the past. That’s what I mean about civility and that’s why Buckley’s passing at this moment in time is so poignant.
McCain scolded Cunningham for being out of line, and rightly so. Buckley would have scolded Cunningham, too, if he had thought Cunningham were anything other than an obnoxious insect who would be best ignored.