Paul Ryan, U.S. House Speaker and the Republican candidate for vice president in 2012, has issued a timely call for Republicans, and all candidates for that matter, to engage in a meaningful, civil debate as this contentious campaign proceeds. He is right, and his words are true even though they seem clearly aimed at his party’s front-runner, Donald Trump.
He didn’t utter Trump’s name, but the words clearly were intended for the candidate and some, not all, of his supporters.
Said the Speaker: “Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of ‘our base’ and ‘their base,’ we unite people around ideas and principles. We shouldn’t accept ugliness as the norm. We should demand better from ourselves and one another.”
Trump’s raucous rallies, including fisticuffs and his own pugnacious rhetoric belittling his critics, have turned the Republican campaign into an almost exclusively negative, mean-spirited, xenophobic exchange of figurative, and sometimes literal, body blows.
Ryan, himself certainly a tough and unbending conservative, nevertheless understands an old maxim of partisan campaigns: Dividing people may be a way to stir up supporters, to rally people around personalities, but once an election is over, the task of governing requires unity and a leader who can deliver it.
Rhetoric about Democrats destroying the country, or about “taking our country back,” or vilifying the commander in chief may appeal to extremes. But it is destructive.
A responsible candidate seeks to appeal to the hopes of the people, not to pander to their fears. When the Brussels attacks happened, Trump seemed first to boast that the attacks were for him an “I told you so” moment.
Instead, the attacks should have spurred a national resolve, a unity, a coming together of all candidates preaching unity and cooperation among leaders.
Republicans — and yes, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — would do well to resolve that from here on out, the campaign of 2016 will now find a focus on foreign and domestic issues and ways to deal with them, not using them to divide the electorate.
For appealing, as Ryan suggests, to “aspirations,” and discussing “ideas and principles” will when the election is over leave the people more confident in their chosen leader and ready to move ahead, not linger on the issues that push them away from each other.