The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 might serve as a model for civility. While intense because of the issue of popular sovereignty, which Stephen Douglas supported and the issue of limiting slave expansion, which Lincoln championed, those debates were full of substance. They held the attention of thousands who watched them in seven Illinois towns. As Robert W. Johannsen writes in "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858," a new introduction to the transcripts, "Anyone reading the debates will immediately make the comparison between political culture in the 1850s and political culture in the present - and come to the obvious depressing conclusion about the level of today's political discourse."
It is depressing that sound bites have replaced sound judgment and character assassination of one's opponent has become expected political strategy.
We are in the middle of a war, a war that is religiously based and, thus, more powerful than military might. This is a war that will likely outlast many future administrations. It is critically important that the public engage the candidates - and the candidates each other - in a debate about how to fight and win this war.
We also must debate the role of government in our lives. Calling upon government to do for us what we ought to be doing for ourselves is the antithesis of what John F. Kennedy called for in his 1961 Inaugural Address.
McCain should say that America's greatness is not its government, but its people who tell government what it is allowed to do. Barack Obama belongs to a party that believes the opposite to be true. He and his fellow Democrats think government should dictate what we are allowed to do, while simultaneously demanding ever-increasing amounts of money from taxpayers for its programs.
Is that uncivil? No, it is the truth and it could launch a real and beneficial - even civil - debate.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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