So much for 'civil discourse'

  • Posted: Saturday, May 17, 2014 12:01 a.m.

"Only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation."

- President Barack Obama, Jan. 12, 2011



"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate."

- President Obama, Second Inaugural Address, Jan. 21, 2013

On April 2 this year President Obama, speaking to students at the University of Michigan, called Republican budget proposals a "meanwich" and a "stinkburger." Mr. Obama was on a campaign swing and speaking in the aggressive style of "Give 'em Hell Harry" Truman, whose rough-and- tumble political rhetoric the president appears to admire.

But name-calling is just politics as usual, and no one should expect reasoned debate on the campaign trail. Which is where Mr. Obama spends a lot of time these days.

Honesty is another matter, however. Knowing that politicians are given to exaggeration, a cottage industry of fact-checkers has arisen to insert a bit of factuality into the public discourse.

It seems clear, for example, that the Koch brothers have not been "one of the main causes of climate change" as alleged by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

When President Obama, at yet another event on May 7, accused Republicans since 2007 of filibustering, and effectively killing, "500 pieces of legislation that would help the middle class," The Washington Post's fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, gave the president "Four Pinocchios," which he describes as signifying a "Whopper."

And that's not a burger.

When Mr. Kessler drilled down into the facts behind this claim, he found some amusing detail. Among the filibusters alleged by the president were eight votes in which Mr. Obama, as a senator, voted to block debate.

Also, over the period cited by the president there were actually 133 successful Senate filibusters, including nominations that do not count as legislation. When limited to legislation, the number of successful filibusters was much smaller. In the current Congress, for example, just 12 pieces of legislation have been successfully filibustered, Mr. Kessler found, using figures from the Congressional Research Service. "That's a far cry from the 136 that Obama is counting in order to tally up 500," Mr. Kessler wrote.

There is a yet further dimension to this overreaching claim of Republican obstruction. President Obama said last week that it "has actually led to an increase in cynicism and discouragement."

But an examination of the record of Congress since 2011 shows that the Democratic-controlled Senate regularly blocks legislation passed by the Republican-dominated House, and that the center of legislative obstruction is the Senate's Democratic leadership.

Take that "mean" and "stinky" Republican budget passed by the House as an example. It won't be debated because the Senate leadership simply decided that it won't write or pass a budget this year.

And last week Senate Majority Leader Reid maneuvered to block a bipartisan energy bill by using the filibuster tactic of requiring 60 votes out of 100 to take up the bill and its amendments.

So if voters are cynical or discouraged by the inability of Congress to make progress on the nation's business, they should ask President Obama and his allies to explain why they are "substituting spectacle for politics" and not promoting "a more civil and honest public discourse."

But please, pose that question in a civil manner.

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