Remember, 2012 Candidates: The Media Won't Let You Keep Your 'Civility Pledge'

07/12/2011 03:46 pm ET | Updated Sep 11, 2011

At Jon Huntsman's campaign launch, the former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China said:

I don't think you need to run down someone's reputation in order to run for the office of president. I respect the President of the United States. He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love, but the question each of us wants the voters to answer is "Who will be the better president?" not who's the better American.

Huntsman brought this up because ... what's the big controversy with his candidacy again? That's right: if he prevails in the primary season, he'll be matched up against President Barack Obama, who tapped him for the China job and with whom he has a friendly relationship. This is how Huntsman squares the circle of how he can plausibly run against a president he willingly worked for and doesn't apparently despise.

So, he will have "differences of opinion" without defaming him. This shouldn't be so hard to understand. The entirety of academic debate, for instance, is an example of how this works.

Of course, after Huntsman said this, the media went hog wild and started reporting that Huntsman had made some sort of global pledge of "civility." (It can be fairly said that I did as well.)

Since then, he has said that Mitt Romney "would have little credibility talking about market-based health care plans" having created CommonwealthCare, and just yesterday, he told reporters:

When you look at the absolute increases in job creation, Utah led the way in the United States in terms of job creation. That, compared and contrasted with certain other states like Massachusetts, which I will just pull out randomly, not first, but 47th.

Oh no! Jon Huntsman has broken the civility pledge he never made by voicing absolutely mild criticism of Mitt Romney, a man to whom Huntsman made no promises!

The "civility pledge" is a sucker's game. In every election cycle I can recall, there's always one well-followed candidate who says that they'll "run a positive campaign" or makes some similar promise to keep things dignified. And then, that same candidate will put out an ad making perfectly generic critiques of his or her opponent. The upbraiding soon follows: "So-and-so promised to not 'go negative' during the campaign, but in a new ad/speech/campaign appearance, that promise was broken."

But what's uncivil or negative about mild criticism? It would be one thing if a candidate stepped in front of the kliegs and started hurling invective like a possessed Regan MacNeil. But can you run a campaign, saying all the while, "My opponent is a great guy! I've got no objection to anything he's done or has promised to do!"

It can't be done. So until the media can get a grip on their inner scold and start being realistic about these things, anytime you make a promise like Huntsman did, you'll be putting yourself in peril.

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