Washington’s Trash Talk Won’t End the Stalemate

What we have here is definitely not a failure to communicate.

Throughout the federal government shutdown last week, partisans voiced their contempt, even loathing, for the other side. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer declared there would be no negotiations “with people with a bomb strapped to their chest.”

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who hails from a state where a quarter of the population lacks health insurance, insisted that political chaos was a small price to pay to prevent “the enormous harms that Obamacare is inflicting on millions of Americans.”

Among the mind-numbing barrage was this tweet promoted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee: “Obamacare Sucks. It Must Be Repealed. Sign the Petition.”

Even President Barack Obama’s Twitter account succumbed to blunt posting: “Take Note, Obamacare is here to stay,” it tweeted on the second day of the shutdown.

And this is the work of party leaders -- the backbenchers are worse.

Yet aren’t these sorts of cheap shots simply par for the political course? Does it really matter?

Well, yes, it does. Democracies run on public discourse, with the business of self-government more or less transacted through political rhetoric. Rhetoric is not something attached to government; it’s the essence of it. And just as graceful rhetoric can elevate the republic and that for which it stands -- see the collected works of Lincoln, Abraham -- rude rhetoric has a corrosive quality that can seep into and weaken the nation’s bones.

Rhetoric can rally us to transcend difference and embrace a higher purpose. It can also warn us: Political antagonists first mount their lecterns before mounting the barricades. Finally, observing rules of rhetoric and decorum mimics the civic exercise of following laws: “No one is to disturb another in his speech by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in his Manual of Parliamentary Practice.

This Congress will see no one thrashed by an opponent’s cane. Nor will this shutdown, and a fast-approaching crisis on the debt ceiling, lead to civil war. But neither is the intensifying battle between the parties a mere theatrical production. In a moment of high conflict, low rhetoric makes the situation worse -- and recovery harder.

On Oct. 4, apparently sensing that rhetorical boundaries had frayed, Harry Reid, the tart-tongued majority leader, called on the Senate, himself included, to work harder to “maintain habits of civility and decorum.” The House of Representatives and White House should do likewise. Politicians in Washington may not be talking themselves into political heaven anytime soon. But they can at least stop talking their way to hell.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.