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Politeness in politics is OK, but candor is indispensable

Tucson – like Dallas before it, and Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and … the list is as endless as the tears those names evoke – has become more than just the site of senseless slaughter.

It has become a rallying cry, a cause. In the weeks since the Jan. 8 mass shooting, many politicians and other well-intentioned people have seized upon Tucson to teach the entire population of the United States the lesson that the tone of our political discourse must moderate.

Nice idea. Certainly, spurning the use of reckless, bitter, distorted charges and counter-charges is a noble ideal. Debate that centers on important issues is much more productive than personal attacks and acerbic one-liners.

But in the name of Tucson, politicians and others should not make the mistake of pulling their rhetorical punches.

The nation, the state, counties, cities and even private companies are best served by candor. Yes, the bitterness of public discourse can turn vile, but that’s not new. The history of politics overflows with escalating insults, and there is no convincing evidence that scurrilous language leads to anything more damaging than additional scurrilous language.

In fact, what does hurt political discourse is something near the opposite pole: meek, softened assertions that disguise true intentions or opinions.

Politicians need to commit, not to some easily violated pledge of no personal attacks, but rather to the more difficult assurance that they will speak out honestly, even at the risk of their own electoral futures.

In that regard, a couple of Arizona political practitioners from the past set a high standard.

On July 16, 1964, U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican nomination for president. A conservative with Gibraltar-like principles, Goldwater stood on that stage in San Francisco and thundered his most famous couplet: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Such language scared so many voters that Goldwater lost the election. But historians trace to that speech, and perhaps to those poetically parallel clauses, the genesis of the conservative movement that swept Ronald Reagan into the White House for two terms.

Nearly a generation after Goldwater’s vehement statement of principles, Bruce Babbitt ran for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. In a televised debate early in the campaign, he said: “I’m going to stand up to say we can balance the budget only by cutting and needs-testing expenditures and entitlements and by raising taxes.”

Babbitt, too, was doomed by his candor. In those innocent days, when the national debt still seemed controllable, he was asking for sacrifices that complacent America laughed at.

His words have more meaning today, as even usually cautious politicians are questioning whether the nation can afford to spend as much as it has pledged for the behemoth of entitlements: Social Security.

Notice how nobly Goldwater and Babbitt served, even in losing efforts. They stood firm in their beliefs, they didn’t whisper unpopular views in private, then resort to facile vote-pandering when the microphones were turned on.

No politician runs to lose, but those who do lose by speaking so bluntly serve more fruitfully than the timid try-to-please-everybody types who win, then never make a whit of difference.

Recently, both the Arizona House and Senate voted to give the city of Glendale the power to annex a piece of land on which an Indian tribe wishes to build a casino. Had the bill passed both houses with greater majorities, the annexation would have had emergency status, and Glendale might have already taken that land, thus dealing the casino a significant setback.

Some Republicans had to make a choice. Which was greater: their dislike of gambling or their devotion to property rights?

The safe vote was to go with the party’s stance against gambling; but enough Republicans voted “no” so that although the bill passed, it was without the emergency status. For the moment, the casino plan has survived.

Sen. Ron Gould, whose name often is followed by some phrase such as “staunch conservative,” voted against the annexation bill. Afterward, he told Arizona Capitol Times reporter Luige del Puerto of his struggle.

 “Sometimes, the social conservative in me is conflicted with the libertarian in me,” Gould said. “Sometimes the social conservative wins. Sometimes the libertarian wins. Today, the libertarian wins.”

In a political world in which absolutes too often dominate, hearing someone willing to acknowledge his (or her) vulnerability is refreshing. Labels such as “staunch conservative” serve an imperfect purpose, to categorize a person, but not really to capture the human element of the difficulty of legislating and governing.

His vote on annexation may cost Gould politically, but his candor is more valuable to the political process than all the soothing why-can’t-we-be-friends vows that have followed that morning of gunfire in Tucson.

— Jim Stasiowski, the writing coach for The Dolan Company, is interim editor of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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