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GOP Should Agree on Civility But Strike Back on Substance

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
When the president gestures toward the political center and calls for more civility in public discourse, should his Republican opponents respond by questioning his sincerity, denouncing his hypocrisy, or defending the Constitutional value of partisanship, bickering and gridlock?

To do so would make sense only if the GOP means to lose the election of 2012 and to undermine its newly installed House majority. Public rejection of calls for civility inevitably looks like a defense of incivility; noisy attacks on offers of compromise suggest a close-minded and mean-spirited extremism.

Positioning yourself as the party of nastiness and polarization may play well with small elements of your base, but can hardly qualify as a winning political strategy.

In a sense, the current conservative dilemma seems unfair – causing some strategists and activists to yearn for the hyper-partisan food fights of the fondly remembered good old days…way back in October and November of 2010.

In the midst of the congressional campaign, President Obama defined himself as a strident, often indignant party leader, campaigning vigorously for his fellow Democrats while ripping their opponents as “enemies” who deserved to be “punished,” or suggesting that the only appropriate Republican role as he steered the country would amount to a position as passive passengers in “the back seat.”

The voters delivered a clear-cut November verdict on this White House combativeness with an historic Republican sweep, delivering 63 seats in the House of Representatives and six Democratic Senators replaced by newcomers from the GOP. But a new presidential strategy emerged during the lame duck session of Congress – tentatively and grudgingly at first, with Obama deriding Republican negotiators as “hostage takers” but later celebrating their joint achievement of a grand compromise on extension of the Bush tax rates. Before leaving Washington for his Hawaii vacation, the president began projecting a notably sunnier face toward his opponents, culminating with his eloquent and effective comments in his big speech on the Tucson tragedy and his expected emphasis on similar themes of accommodation and civility in his State of the Union Address.

The public has responded positively with a small uptick in Obama’s standing in every major poll. Americans remain broadly divided on his job performance (a January AP-GfK Poll shows 53% approval, 46% disapproval) but maintain big reservoirs of good will toward the president’s personality.

The most significant factor for Republicans as they plan a concerted drive to deny the Democrats a second Obama term emerged in a fascinating detail from a Quinnipiac University Survey released on January 13th. In a provocative question, the pollsters asked 1,647 respondents whether they liked Obama’s policies and whether they liked him “as a person.”

The good news for Republicans: a slight plurality (48 to 46%) said they disliked administration policies. But the bad news showed a huge majority (73%) who said they liked the president personally. Only 19% agreed with the core conservative position, agreeing with the statement “I don’t like Obama as a person and I also don’t like most of his policies.” Even among self-described Republicans, only a minority (41%) said they disliked the president as an individual.

These figures argue the suicidal nature of any political strategy that scoffs at the president’s current calls for a more gracious and uplifting tone in our ongoing policy debates. The key voters who could conceivably facilitate future GOP victories are the nearly one-third of Americans (29%, according to the Quinnipiac Poll) who say they disagree with Obama on policy but like him personally.

The GOP won’t persuade these citizens by suggesting that the president is pursuing a “secret agenda” to wreck the economy, or following the dreaded Saul Alinsky model for socialist takeover, or deliberately undermining American strength because of a deep anti-colonialist “rage” associated with the Kenyan father he hardly knew.

Even conservatives who insist (against logic and evidence) that such dark and conspiratorial motivations accurately characterize this administration must acknowledge at some point that it’s easier to persuade Americans that their leader is wrong than that he is evil. The public will far more readily credit charges of incompetence than they will accept accusations of diabolical intent: after all, incompetence is vastly more common in human affairs than implacable malevolence.

Moreover, it should be easier to persuade people that the president’s wrong (or inept) on health care and spending than convincing them that he’s knowingly trying to wreck the country to fulfill his nefarious visions as a radical ideologue. Most Americans will stubbornly refuse to impute vicious motives to a familiar and attractive figure who seems like a nice guy and loving family man, and insistently expresses his love of country and his own good intentions. It will be far easier to win over some of the people who currently like Obama policies that these approaches aren’t working than to persuade the massive majority that’s fond of the president that he is actually a bad guy. In public opinion polling, positions on issues shift far more readily and rapidly than responses to personalities.

And what of the Tea Party activists and others who remain deeply convinced of the bad intentions and socialist schemes of the president and his top advisors? They need to realize that in a time of national crisis it’s more important to win elections and legislative battles than to advance abstract arguments about your opponent’s motivations – motivations known ultimately only to God and, perhaps, history.

So when the president says, “civility,” Republicans should respond by saying, “We’ll call your civility and raise you to graciousness—and now let’s get back to working together to fix the mess with health care and taxes.”

By avoiding a protracted debate over political style they can return the public focus to policy substance. And those are the arguments – polite, positive but principled – that conservatives can and must win.

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