I’ve been to more Republican campaign events that I can reasonably recall. Having interned and volunteered for a handful of local candidates, I’m used to the large crowds amped up on the idea that, after Election Day, society might begin to change for the better.
I’m also the last person you’d expect to find at a Democratic rally featuring President Barack Obama. But, three days before the election, in a crowded gym filled with cheering supporters for Michigan’s bluest candidates, that’s exactly where I was.
I watched passionate devotees erupt with hope and excitement as candidates promised wider access to quality education, middle class-centric policies, a better economy with a booming job market and a fairer government less controlled by special interests. At several points in the speech, I was tempted to smile and cheer with the crowd — though my yellow press pass and frequent self-reminders to maintain a journalist’s façade of impartiality (hopefully) prevented those reactions.
For a good portion of each candidate’s and, subsequently, Obama’s speech, the focus was on issues and policies that consistently poll favorably among most Americans, regardless of political orientation. At several moments, if someone had told me Obama’s words were actually those spoken by his presidential opponent two years ago, I would’ve believed them.
As normal, rational citizens, there are just certain things we can all get behind. The real economic progress described by Obama really isn’t so divisive. And I’m fairly sure that leaders valuing the “hard work and responsibility that the ordinary people they represent take with them every single day when they go to the job,” appeal to voters on both sides of the aisle.
Yet, Obama made a concerted effort to differentiate Democratic candidates from their Republican opponents. He did this by painting them as anti-family, anti-worker and anti-women. He conflated and (unfairly) compared, even quoting, sans context, an unidentified Republican candidate, who said, “You could argue that money is more important for men.” After a quick Google search, I found that the quote was given by the Assistant Majority Leader of the Wisconsin state Senate Glenn Grothman in 2012.
Obama was giving a campaign speech in front of a base of supporters, not an address to the nation, and firing up the crowd just comes with the territory. Sometimes making dramatic statements is the best way to do that. But, in a few days, the election will be over. Those feelings, that animosity stirred by aggravating statements pitting leaders against their constituents won’t fade just because one party or the other has decisively won.
In one part of his speech, Obama focused on the progress that this state has recently realized. But, instead of properly giving credit to the swaths of policymakers at every level who contributed to these impressive improvements, he politicized it.
“Despite the unyielding opposition of folks on the other side, there are workers who have jobs today who didn’t have them before,” he said. “There are auto plants that got shifts that weren’t there before.”
The tension that characterizes the relationship between Republican and Democratic parties, especially at the national legislative level, is undeniable. But even so, any assertion that either party alone is responsible for Michigan’s economic recovery, or that one side accomplished it in spite of the other, is unequivocally false.
Obama and the Democrats certainly aren’t alone in their use of dichotomous and partisan language. But, when Obama was campaigning in 2008, he characterized himself as a bipartisan leader, so his move toward divisiveness in this election is particularly disappointing. One quote was particularly condescending and off-putting.
“Republicans are good people, they’re patriots. They love their country … But they’ve got bad ideas,” he said. “And I always try to explain — look, I’ve got members of my family who I love and have bad ideas. I still love them. I just wouldn’t put them in charge.”
Ironically, so many of both parties’ ideals, if not the ideas themselves, are strikingly similar. And that’s not to say that there aren’t differences — there are. But effective policy will draw from both parties’ platforms — it’s what our government was designed to do. By characterizing Republicans so negatively now, it only reduces the prospects of future cooperation.
A few weeks ago, I listened to University Regent Kathy White give a talk on leadership. One lesson she gave really stuck in my mind: there’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets credit. It’s abundantly clear that Michigan’s economic recovery is the result of interplay between Republican and Democratic ideas. Instead of highlighting their differences, leaders from both parties should recognize that real, continued progress will require serious, pragmatic collaboration — not opportunistic criticism aimed at winning votes.
In a few days, the competition will be over. It will be time to put aside the differences, forget the negative advertisements and move past antagonizing words. But, no matter who is elected, our new leaders will have a responsibility to focus on the most important thing both parties have in common: the people they serve.
Victoria Noble can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.