Guest column: Moderation, Yes; Extremism, No!

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By Wayne Robinson

Adjunct Professor

Foundations of Civic Engagement

Florida Gulf Coast University

In the 1964 presidential election cycle, Arizona Republican U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater made a volatile, highly publicized statement: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is not a vice."

For that and other statements characterized as too far right, he suffered a landslide loss to President Lyndon Johnson.

Though later re-elected to the U.S. Senate, incredibly, Goldwater became a leader in the Senate through moderation and bipartisanship. But his "take no prisoners" style of presidential campaigning is still alive and well.

As a result, public discourse in America is suffering deeply, especially in the political arena. The "go negative" playbook for winning political campaigns, especially when fed by moneyed interests, is devastating our culture and political process. As recent polls show, most Americans feel it has even infected the U.S. Supreme Court.

When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, a majority of the nation and the world celebrated. His election was a bold repudiation of America's past enslavement and segregation of African Americans. It was also an appeal to hope and to rebuilding a nation savaged economically by two wars — both fought on borrowed money. More pressing, our financial system had run amok due to unchecked greed and lack of regulation.

At the start of Obama's term, Republicans were on life support. Their policies were blamed for a near collapse of our economic system. Compounding the problem, they had nothing new to propose other than cutting the taxes of the rich and reducing the safety net that the nation's poor were depending upon. There was even talk of their demise as an effective party.

That was before they found their twin focus: making Obama a "one-term president" through insuring a "do-nothing Congress."

Despite having a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, the president squandered much of his first year as president attempting to reach across the aisle and work with the opposition. Republicans had no such intentions. They determined not to let any meaningful legislation get to his desk, lest he be viewed even more positively. And in incredible cheek, they accused him of being unwilling to work together.

It was the same reverse logic utilized to defeat U.S. Sen. John Kerry's presidential bid when he ran in 2004 against President George W. Bush. Texas billionaires produced an ad campaign, now known as the "Swiftboating" series, which distorted Vietnam veteran Kerry's military record, even though he had fought in Vietnam and won a Silver Medal and Purple Heart. The key to their strategy: avoid discussing the less than distinguished military record of Bush, by distorting the true military strengths of Kerry.

When Obama stepped into office, he was like a sheep being led to the slaughter. Barely four months into his first term, a New York Times reporter asked what had surprised him most to that point. He answered: Given the level of the problems facing the nation, he had anticipated a greater willingness on the part of Republicans to work together in a bipartisan way.

Little did he know that not working together was part of their plan to replace him!

Their strategy has taken its toll. Obama's signature health care bill has been derided as "Obamacare" and socialism, even though it was modeled on what Massachusetts passed when Mitt Romney was their governor. In the presidential primaries, Romney disowned it and made a not so gracious series of flip-flops (see Etch-a-Sketch). His campaign is focused on attack ads, aided and abetted by billionaires given free rein by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

Yet, despite this bleak horizon, there has to be hope. At their best, Republicans and Democrats have fundamentally different approaches to government policy and practice. Understanding those differences and articulating alternatives should be at the heart of what we expect from both candidates. That begins with fairness seeking understanding. As Mortimer Adler once wrote, "Before we can say, 'We agree' or 'We disagree,' we must be able to say, 'We understand.'"

That means realizing that America and the world are not suffering from scarcity, but accessibility. It's a sobering reality that requires cooperation among us all. It starts with demanding informed government policies on food, water, energy, education, healthcare, housing, and the nature of America's ongoing support for freedom here and around the world.

As voters, discerning who has the better grasp of that reality is our task in this next election.

Robinson is entering his 12th year as minister of the All Faiths Unitarian Congregation in Fort Myers.

© 2012 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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