Something Nice to Say

A note of cordiality.

At the close of Monday’s Massachusetts senatorial debate between incumbent Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren, moderator David Gregory asked if either candidate had anything nice to say about the other.

Warren took the opportunity to commend Brown for voting to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December 2010—a fairly brave act for a Republican.  Brown, for his part, called Warren an excellent teacher, glibly adding that he would do all he could to keep her safely at Harvard Law.

Senator Brown has said his race against Professor Warren is predominantly a question of character.  To the extent that he is correct, the measure of one’s character can be fairly well determined by how one regards his or her opponent.  To heap genuine praise demonstrates a generosity and humility that is only to one’s credit.  In politics, I wish it was done more often.

Let us be clear from the start:  Not all humility is created equal.  There is real humility, and there is political humility.  Saying that your opponent has “a lovely family,” as Warren did, doesn’t count.  Nor does calling your opponent “a nice guy.”  Everyone has a lovely family.  Everyone is a nice guy.  That’s the name of the game, and it’s a lazy point to underline.

Part of being a great debater is to know your adversary’s strongest arguments, and to be able to make them better than he or she can.  In that vein, praise for one’s political nemesis ought to have real muscle behind it, as if the person were not your nemesis at all.  It might get your audience to thinking, “He must be really confident of his own policies, if he is willing to be so generous toward the other guy.”

Real magnanimity must also be unconditional, and not backhanded, or as a way of tacitly praising oneself.

During the presidential race, for instance, Barack Obama has taken to trumping the success of Mitt Romney’s health care reform in Massachusetts and citing it as an inspiration for the Affordable Care Act.  While technically a compliment—“His policy was so good, I adopted it as my own”—Obama employed it as a means of kneecapping Romney in his standing with Republican voters, who consider “Romneycare” the least appealing item on Romney’s resume.

Most politicians seem to couple rhetorical generosity with admitting error, viewing each as a sign of weakness and something to be avoided at all costs—hence their tendency to do so.

This brings us to a corollary question, hardly ever answered adequately:  “What have been your biggest mistakes?”  Historically, politicians have tackled this question in one of two ways.  The first is to tender the broad throat-clearer, “Oh, I’m sure I’ve made many mistakes in my life,” without proffering a single actual example.  The second, and maybe even worse, approach is to provide what might sound like a real answer but is, in fact, a boast.

Perhaps the most spectacular instance of this latter ploy was essayed by none other than Mitt Romney during a senatorial debate against Edward Kennedy in 1994.  Asked for his “greatest personal failing,” Romney gave a detailed account of his years of service in helping the poor and the sick.  When the moderator interrupted to inquire if Romney had heard the question properly, Romney sheepishly said his “failing,” then, is having not done even more of this wonderful, saintly work.

We’re not stupid.  We understand why our perspective leaders, with everything on the line, shy away from self-inflicted vulnerability and from making their adversaries look good.  The question answers itself.

That is precisely why those who run the risk of making themselves appear human, and of treating members of the electorate as if they were adults, deserve a special kind of respect and encouragement.

Further, as I have already suggested, magnanimity may well prove politically advantageous.  Obama, after all, hardly seemed to do himself any harm in 2008 by preceding every critique of John McCain with a nod toward McCain’s military service.  McCain, moreover, only made himself appear petty by regarding Obama as an in-over-his-head neophyte who was beneath McCain’s good graces.

This year (if the reporting is to be believed), loathing between Obama and Romney is mutual, with neither viewing the other as worthy of the office they both seek.  That might make for a tartly amusing first debate this evening, but it sure isn’t a good sign for the country.

Late at night on November 6, one of these men will deliver a congratulatory concession to the other, and it would be—shall we say, nice?—if the words of well-wishing were spoken, at least partially, from the heart.

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