This presidential election has produced a bitter divide between Americans favoring either President Obama or Gov. Romney. Cher recently tweeted that under a Romney presidency, she could not "breathe the same air as Him & his Right Wing Racist Homophobic Women Hating Tea Bagger Masters." Comedian Jon Lovitz used a collection of unprintable language to refer to President Obama.
Our First Amendment gives Americans opining about presidential candidates the right to be critical, even nasty. But a legal "right" doesn't mean it's right! Laws do not define morality. You have the right to tell random people that they are fat, ugly or stupid. But it is wrong to do so, and our culture frowns on it. Something may be legal, but it can still be wrong, immoral or simply unacceptable.
We are a nation of laws, but we can also strive to be a decent nation. In the quest for national decency, I suggest the following non-partisan rules for the upcoming election:
1. Do not challenge the patriotism of either candidate.
Running for president is a grueling ordeal. What motivates candidates is a debatable mix of ego, service, altruism, patriotism, hubris and a sense of obligation to those who have come before, those who are less fortunate or to the next-generation. But a love for and concern about our nation, a.k.a. patriotism, is and must be an un-debatable given for both President Obama and Gov. Romney.
Despite claims four years ago that he was the "Manchurian Candidate" and spurious allegations about a shadowy upbringing, President Obama has shown equanimity, steadiness and a general continuity with the foreign policy of his predecessors. Similarly, Romney has proven as Massachusetts governor, as head of the Salt Lake City Olympics and as patriarch of a large American family, that he cares about America and its future.
Being president is physically risky and emotionally challenging. Every day, the president confronts potential threats against the nation and must make difficult decisions. Not every decision will be right, and many Americans will disagree with the choices made. President Obama has been a steady president, and just because I disagree with some of his decisions does not mean he is not doing what he thinks is best for the country.
2. Do not look to the race or religion of either candidate.
America's unique diversity is a huge national asset. We are the most innovative country in the world for many reasons, but certainly among them is that we continue to not only accept diversity, but we also embrace different perspectives that catalyze breakthrough alternatives and out-of-the-box thinking. Competence rises to the top, and scrapping filters of race, religion, sex and other non-quality based measures, assure us a broad candidate pool.
Just as we accepted President Kennedy's Catholicism, so too should we embrace, or at least disregard, Romney's Mormonism. We should also avoid code words to attack the candidates' race or religion. Calling Obama "the food stamp president" or Romney "weird" is simply an unacceptable proxy for attacking the candidate's race or religion.
3. Do not publicly criticize candidates' wives.
Spouses are the unappreciated heroines of politics. While the candidate has chosen to run for office, the spouse's only clear choice was to marry a younger version of the candidate. A candidate's spouse must often maintain a household, keep the family together and look interested and enthusiastic having repeatedly heard the same stump speech.
Presidential spouses are especially off limits as they sacrifice privacy and freedom, and face physical risk. Our recent history suggests they have made us better by focusing the nation on serious national challenges such as alcoholism, mental health, women's rights, literacy and obesity.
4. Keep the kids off-limits.
After President Carter's ten-year-old daughter was unflatteringly described by a reporter, Americans and the media correctly agreed that kids are off-limits. I have appreciated the media keeping its distance from the Obama children and hope it continues with the Romney grandchildren. However, Mitt Romney has five adult sons who occasionally speak on behalf of the campaign, so their remarks are fair under scrutiny.
5. Focus on the issues, leadership, experience and qualifications to be president.
Both candidates and the parties they represent have clearly different positions on major issues. They have distinctive visions for the national future. These two candidates present a stark choice by almost every measure. I can't imagine most thinking people would agree with either candidate, or even any other person, including their spouse, on every issue. So you must prioritize issues. For me, economic issues trump social issues.
And beyond the substantive issues, I find it helpful to approach the presidency as a CEO job to be filled. How would a headhunter approach and evaluate the candidates? In any case, a combination of substantive viewpoints, leadership capabilities and gut is a good way to decide which candidate to support.
It seems that every presidential election is the "most important." But as Americans, we can elevate the debate beyond the distasteful mudslinging of the blogosphere to a debate on the direction of the country. We can be a better and more united country next November, whomever wins.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, "The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream."
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