Just days after Nixon won in a landslide reelection in 1972, presidential adviser Pat Buchanan wrote to Nixon that the time had come to settle the score. “Dough should start going to those who are our friends, Fordham and Whittier and Brigham Young and Kansas State should be getting the swag,” Buchanan instructed. “Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the other Left institutions should be cut back.” As Buchanan pushed forward with his agenda for the second administration, he warned Nixon “we owe our friends.”
The second Nixon administration undoubtedly marked the invention of a new type of politics, which punished political opponents without regard for the truth and treated them like enemies. Mickey Edwards, the former Republican Congressman, wrote recently that this kind of politics endured and was strengthened throughout the 1970s and 1980s. There had “always been partisanship,” Edwards observed, but by the 1990s, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich anointed an era of “nonstop partisanship, on every issue.” Edwards noted Gingrich’s strategy of “bringing issues to the floor that had no chance of passing, but only to embarrass members or to put them at odds with their party leadership or the folks back home.” Gingrich insisted that members of his party treat Democrats and out-of-step Republicans as “enem[ies] to be vanquished.”
Like so many of their peers across the country — those in the “Millennial Generation,” spanning from birth years in the early 1980s through birth years in the late 1990s — Princeton undergraduates are smart and sophisticated, compassionate and confident. Not inherently partisan, the Millennials possess what seems like limitless power to shift a prevailing status quo and tremendous influence over shaping important debates. “Election break” looms just days away. While working for a political campaign, mobilizing voters for a particular cause or candidate or volunteering at the polls is certainly noble, make this election break as much about setting a new tone for the debate as it is about action. Demand facts — rest assured, in this age of the fact-checker and the fact-checker’s fact-checker — facts do exist. Demand facts; demand to know the way forward from candidates and their advocates, and don’t accept vagueness or hyperbole. Demand substance.
In our politics, there is too much hate; there is too much meanness. The Nixon administration undoubtedly provided the blueprint for that in many ways. Senior advisers and the President himself spent precious time in Washington seeking to halt Princeton’s election holiday and then seeking revenge on what they perceived as liberal universities. Privileged with an immense power to shape the debate, change lives and offer a way forward, they chose divisiveness instead.
While this type of politics has become the norm, it is not the only way. In the 2008 campaign, Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, a war hero and a patriot, chose a different way. At a town hall meeting in La Crosse, Wis., a supporter explained to the candidate, “I can’t trust Obama ... I’ve read about him ... He’s an Arab.” Without hesitation, McCain responded with a head shake: “No ma’am, he’s a decent, family-man citizen, who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign is all about.” Though some interpreted McCain’s response as one that perpetuated the idea that being “Arab” and being a “decent family-man citizen” were mutually exclusive, it seems likely that unfortunate implication from McCain was unintentional. McCain was focused instead on responding to the larger argument that emerged in some circles of the American population during the 2008 campaign which falsely portrayed then Senator Obama as non-American born and maliciously insinuated he had dangerous ties to extremism. Regardless, McCain’s effort to move the debate to one that was about substantive issues rather than invented rumors about Obama’s ethnic heritage was significant.
The larger importance of McCain’s response did not get sufficient attention at the time; it still doesn’t. In the days before inauguration in 2009 — in a moment of bipartisan hope — president-elect Barack Obama held a dinner in his opponent’s honor at the Washington Hilton. There, he heaped praised on McCain. “There are few Americans who understand this need for common purpose and common effort better than John McCain,” the president suggested.
There is a different way forward, one which involves talking about real issues and finding solutions to make peoples’ lives better — that is, after all, the purpose of governing. Opponents aren’t enemies; disagreements aren’t insurmountable; compromise is not a sin.
Dov W. Grohsgal is a lecturer in the Department of History and the Princeton Writing Program. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/26/31628/