23 Feb 2011

Will age of civility in American politics change Presidential campaign?

US politicians pledged to be less vitriolic in their rhetoric after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. But will this last to the 2012 Presidential campaign?

Nearly seven weeks after the shooting of Congresswomen Gabby Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, two former US Presidents have joined together to open a new centre devoted to encouraging greater civility in public discourse. Bill Clinton and George W Bush will serve as honorary chairmen of the National Institute for Civil Discourse based at the University of Arizona.

There is no evidence that the Tucson shooter, Jared Loughener, was inspired to kill six people and shoot 13 others because of a the nasty tone in American political debate. But the killings did spark a national conversation about the need for politicians to be more civil toward each other.

Bill Clinton and George W Bush may be the only politicians still committed to practicing that ideal 46 days later. But civility has at least now become a stated aspiration in US public life even if it’s not a daily reality.

So will this make any difference to the 2012 Presidential election campaign?

That depends in part who the candidates are. And it’s not too early to start talking about who might run for the Republican nomination.

The big question consuming most pundits is whether or not Sarah Palin will run. She’s not saying and will keep teasing us for months to come. But as her idea of a political campaign consists of making sarcastic remarks about Michelle Obama’s push to encourage breast feeding it’s a good guess that her involvement will not raise the tone of the debate.

At the start of the campaign candidates are desperately trying to get themselves noticed and being polite and civil is rarely attracts the spotlight. Which is why the very different approach of one potential candidate stands out from the crowd.

An interesting character to watch is Jon Huntsman Jnr, currently US Ambassador to China, formerly moderate Republican, Governor of Utah.

He has told President Obama he intends to leave Beijing at the end of April and that’s fuelling speculation he wants to run for President. Hardliners say that the fact he has worked for Obama as one of his key Ambassadors will damage him in the eyes of Republican primary voters. But if we are to enter a new era of civil politics maybe voters will see it as impressively bi-partisan.

Huntsman hasn’t officially declared that he is running but his supporters have launched a fundraising Political Action Committee – or PAC. The website – Horizon PAC – has a big H logo which currently stands for “Horizon” but could easily stand for “Huntsman” if he officially tips his hat into the ring.

The philosophy stated on the website is a fascinating departure from what you usually hear from Presidential candidates:

“What happened to decency? To reason? What happened to common goals? To calm? To respect? When were they replaced with anger? Slammed fists. Divisive words. Winning at any cost. Maybe, someday, we will find a new generation of conservative leaders…”

I wonder who he could mean? Probably not Donald Trump, who has also said that he is interested in running for President.