The Plum Line

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Conservatives and Obama's speech

The Tucson speech may go down as one of the most important of Barack Obama's presidency, so it's worth nailing down its most important accomplishment: He finally got conservatives to listen to what he had to say - about them.

Conservatives have widely hailed Obama's speech, primarily because they think he "rebuked" the left when he said that our overheated discourse didn't cause the Arizona shootings. This line was important but not for the reasons conservatives think it was. By absolving the right from blame, he made it impossible for them to shut out his larger message.

Obama's statement that rhetoric didn't cause the massacre is best understood as a set-up to the larger point that followed: that the bloodshed confers a moral obligation upon all of us to improve the tone and integrity of our discourse. If Obama had delivered this latter message without the set-up, conservatives would have had an opening to reject it as political.

Before the speech, it was widely assumed that Obama would not engage the topic of civility in our political discourse. Many on the right had been in a defensive crouch - in some ways understandably so - leaving them inclined to interpret even general calls for toning down rhetoric as thinly disguised blame for the murders. Obama, the thinking went, would not risk broaching the subject.

But Obama took on the topic in a big way. By leading with an explicit statement that the tone of our discourse was not to blame for the killings, he made it impossible for conservatives to maintain their defensive posture, compelling them to respond positively to his larger message.

And that message - that we all tone it down - was mainly, though not exclusively, directed at the right. In a context where prominent conservatives have accused Obama of not loving America, of being a socialist and a Muslim sympathizer, it's clear whom Obama was addressing when he insisted that we improve the discourse for the sake of our country.

Whether the more strident voices on the right act on this message is another matter, but at least Obama got conservatives to listen to it and to implicitly endorse it as something to aspire to as we move forward.

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