When did we get to be such wimps? I’m not talking about the physical safety obsession (kneepads for bicycles, really?) or even endemic weather fear (The Washington area has used up so many snow days for no reason other than white stuff left on the grass it’ll have to add days to make up for legitimate snow days.). I’m talking here about horror at the sight of “bullying” and “ruthless” politicians.
Let me say at the start, it would be wrong to use public power to punish innocents (as Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did when he asked’ “Why would we do that?” when asked to release funding during the shutdown for pediatric cancer patients, or as President Obama did when he unnecessarily closed monuments to the dismay of aging WWII vets). And so, yes, closing a bridge to mess up people’s day is wrong and a firing offense. But when did speaking sharply to the media, or giving a feisty response at a town hall, become a political felony? (I think when the New Jersey governor got famous, but maybe before.) Thank goodness the bullying hysteria wasn’t in effect when LBJ twisted arms to pass the Civil Rights Act or Ronald Reagan famously declared, “I paid for this microphone!” We don’t want to promote public rudeness, but politics, as the saying goes, ain’t beanbag; both sides routinely insist their guy stand up to the opposition. As for “ruthless,” is anyone with the slightest interest in politics unaware that the Clintons have been playing rough for years? They aren’t alone. Obama was ruthless, I suppose, in dispensing with Hillary Clinton in 2008; Reid has been ruthless running the Senate; and conservatives pine for the day when we had a president “ruthless” with our enemies. Perhaps some ground rules are in order, then.
First, consistency should be encouraged. If Rahm Emanuel is an appropriate choice for chief of staff then, absent any evidence of involvement in the bridge scandal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a perfectly acceptable presidential candidate.
Second, lively rejoinders to the press aren’t bullying; they can be entertaining. We shouldn’t encourage or expect elected officials to roll over and play dead when they are asked overly aggressive, biased or unfair questions. (Is it “bullying” when the New York Times runs story after story on Christie, including with errors that need correction, as its public editor admitted?)
Third, telling special interest groups “no” isn’t bullying; it’s standing up to bullying. In that regard Christie has been the protector of New Jersey children against teacher lobbyists who would “bully” lawmakers into setting wages, benefits and working conditions that help them but not students. Speaker of the House John Boehner wasn’t “bullying” when he called out the third-party right-wing groups that have declared war on mainstream Republicans.
Fourth, we need a whole lot more ruthlessness in foreign policy. We need to stop assigning our foes benign motives and start dealing with their heinous actions (e.g. use of Syrian WMDs) with a cold, calculating deployment of strength. We don’t want our leaders walking on egg shells when they should be dealing with the world’s most prominent bullies — Vladimir Putin, to name one.
In sum, “bullying,” “ruthlessness” and — horrors! — “political payback” have been around since politics began. Only recently in our wimpified culture have they become epithets. More often than not, they are used purely against pols we don’t like. President Harry Truman was right on many things but never more so than we he said, “If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen.” (And come to think of it, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”)