President Obama’s appearance yesterday in Baltimore with Republican House members was certainly a stunning event, not least in that it seems to have left some Republicans stunned as to why they allowed it to be televised live. Obama seized the opportunity to lay out the biggest problem that accompanies demonizing the opposing party—members of opposing parties can’t then work together on anything without their constituents thinking they’ve somehow defected or sold out. That leaves each side with nothing other to do than fight against each other, rather than accomplishing anything together, which is what voters need them to do.
At one point during his question and answer period, in a section having to do with the national budget, Obama spoke about wanting to bring transparency to all Congressional “earmarks,” those additions to necessary bills that add on monies for projects and programs in some congressional district or other, that the Congressperson gets to go back home and tout as what s/he has accomplished for the voters back home. The President wants all proposed earmarks to be put online where everyone in the country can see them, as a way of discouraging some of the spurious and frivolous things that have historically been slipped through Congress. It was in that context that he said, “I think sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
That applies, also, to the very event at which he was speaking. It was the White House that wanted the event to be televised live. The Republican House leadership at first resisted, then agreed. Afterward, MSNBC’s Luke Russert reported that one House Republican said to him that “We shouldn’t have done that.” The only reason for wishing it hadn’t been televised would be to keep from the public view the things the President had to say, especially about the process and dangers of demonizing everyone and everything associated with the other party; that is to say, to be able to maintain the culture of demonization that has become so prevalent in U.S. politics. Here, too, sunshine is the best disinfectant.
But while some in the Republican leadership regret the live telecast of sunshine being thrown into their works, I’m optimist enough to believe that a considerable number of Republicans were, albeit silently, cheering President Obama and the live telecast as opening a door to the return of a civility that used to be SOP in Congress, and which will give them a way to accomplish even more for their voters back home.
When did the demonizing take over? Hard to say when it took over, but it certainly took root with the fundamentalist rise in the Republican party a few decades ago. Quite literally, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others made claims that The Devil was behind much, if not all, of liberal politics. I defer to Frank Schaeffer, author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back, to impart the details of how that happened. But prior to the rise of the religious right, respectful opposition among opposing party members was the norm.
May the sunshine that Obama brought to Congressional politics yesterday be the beginning of its re-establishment. If you haven’t seen the video yet, you can find it and the transcript here.