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How Gingrich/Giuliani Sabotaged Civic Debate

06/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This past week, America saw two familiar figures impose violent rhetoric into the Presidential debate on behalf of John McCain: Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani. It was a textbook example of the right-wing effort to use violent language not just to distract the public, but to undermine the attempt by citizens to have a pragmatic discussion with an eye towards solving problems.

Trying To Have a Real Debate: A Nation of Laws?

On June 12, 2008, the Supreme Court restored Habeas Corpus to detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and in so doing, the courts initiated an important conversation about what it means for the United States to be a Democracy based on a system of laws. Within that ruling itself, Justice Scalia invited those who opposed the ruling to use violent rhetoric by stating that the court's decision "will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed" (link).

Within days of that ruling, Gingrich and Giuliani followed Scalia's lead, pushed their way into the right-wing broadcast, and began to argue that liberal views on Habeas Corpus would kill Americans.

The basic context pf the Habeas Ruling was this:

  1. America is a nation of laws, the fundamental basis of which is the right to know why and protest one's incarceration by the state.
  2. Habeas has been revoked during past wars when it was feared that enemies to the United States were living among the general population and needed to be removed without delay (Civil War, WWII).
  3. In past cases, the court restored Habeas when the war ended. In this case, Habeas has been restored on the idea the initial perceived 'war' requiring Habeas suspension has since become a metaphorical 'war' used to maintain certain policies.

Now, what Americans heard in this historic court ruling is a key civic question:

How long can a nation of laws endure if the fundamental right on which all democracies are based has been abrogated?

The answer is something to
this effect:

So long as that nation of laws is at war.

There was a deliberative purpose to the Supreme Court ruling, in other words, which relates to that crucial question for our democracy about the length, nature, legality, and necessity of f what has been presented to the public by the Bush Administration and the McCain campaign as a 'war' on many fronts without end. And in the wake of the court's ruling, Americans were invited to debate that issue: to what extent we are at war, when it began, how it will end, has it already ended, and so forth.

This is the point at which Gingrich and Giuliani entered onto the scene and used violent rhetoric to undermine the very process of debating this crucial issue.

On Sunday June 15, Gingrich went on Face The Nation and argued that Barack Obama's lauding of the restoration of Habeas could bring about the nuclear annihilation of American city:

He applauded this court decision. This court decision is a disaster, which could cost us a city. And the debate ought to be over whether or not you're prepared to risk losing an American city on behalf of five lawyers - it was a 5-4 decision. Five lawyers had decided that the Supreme Court counts more than the Congress and the president combined in national security. That ought to be a principled argument between McCain and Obama, about whether or not you're prepared to allow any random nut-case district judge, who has no knowledge of national security, to set the rules for terrorists (N. Gingrich, Face The Nation, Jun 15, 2008)

So there it is: Days after the Supreme court restores Habeas, as Americans debate the civic meaning of this ruling, Newt Gingrich stands up and tells us that the ruling could bring about thousands if not millions of American deaths by terrorists, and that the Democratic candidate for President welcomes this. If ever there was a clear case of a right-wing pundit imposing violent rhetoric on an issue to undermine meaningful debate, that was it.

Next up, Rudy Giuliani, Mr. 9/11-9/11-and-did-I-mention-9/11 himself.

Giuliani joined Gingrich in the effort to derail the civic debate about Habeas by criticizing Obama a few days after Gingrich's CBS spot that. Speaking publicly for the first time in months, Giuliani claimed that Obama's position on fighting terrorism--which advocates police work to track down, arrest, and try terrorists--would exposed America to terrorists seeking to destroy our way of life and, effectively, result in more deaths.

Of course, in criticizing him, Giuliani lied about Obama's position on national security, but that is not the key point. The real issue here is that Giuliani joined Gingrich in undermining the Habeas Corpus debate by yanking the media into a distracting accusation that the Democratic candidate's policies will lead to the horrific death of Americans at the hands of our most violent enemies.

That, America, was right-wing violent rhetoric in action.

Old Distractions Rehashed

The first key point to note here is that in this new episode, both Gingrich and Giuliani recycled violent arguments published in their best-selling books (Giuliani's Leadership, Gingrich's Winning the Future) in which they lay out the basic tenets of their 'Democratic-anti-terrorism-policy-will-bring-the-destruction-of-America' argument. Second, broadcast outlets have a long record of amplifying these arguments through Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, FOX News affiliates news, and more recently, Joe Scarborough. Third, these candidates ran high-profile Presidential bids that were rejected by the American public (Gingrich's was exploratory, Giuliani was the once-and-future front-runner). And fourth, in response to this argument, Democratic politicians typically become nervous that they will be branded 'weak on defense,' putting out more and more bellicose arguments, rather than sticking to the topic at hand.

So, there was the violent rhetoric trajectory right in front of us, put in motion this week by the same high-profile players that have been using it effectively since 2001. A key civic issue enters the public arena. High-profile right-wing pundits reframe the issue in violent terms. The media and Democratic leaders accept the frame rather than dismissing it. Meaningful civic debate on the topic dissipates.

The steps of this episode can be summed up like this:

1) Habeas corpus restored - American debates a 'nation of laws'

2) Gingrich/Giuliani proclaim that Democrats hasten destruction of America

3) Major news outlets echo this argument

4) Democrats respond by saying they are "strong on defense"

But let's step back for a minute and see if Step 3 and 4 really went down like this--let's see if the media and the Democrats have learned something since 2006.

On June 18th's Morning Joe, Joe Scarbarough had as a guest Jonathan Capehart, editorial writer for The Washington Post, to discuss the Habeas decision among other things. Showing that the media would not be distracted by Gingrich and Giuliani--and despite Scarborough's effort to amplify the violent rhetoric--Capehart focused the interview on the actual topic Americans should be discussing. Asked by Scarborough if the court ruling made America less safe in the face of terrorism, Capehart emphasized the key civic question the restoration of habeas is
about Americans' belief that we are and should be a nation of laws. Bravo, Jonathan Capehart. Yes indeed, it seems the some key figures in the media have seen what the likes of Gingrich and Giuliani are doing, and now refuse to be a part of it.

But what about the Democratic Party? Had they figured out what Gingrich and Giuliani were doing?

Right after Capehart's spot on Morning Joe, Susan Rice, an Obama campaign Foreign Policy advisor, came into the studio for an interview. Susan Rice explained that the McCain/Bush approach to terrorism was not actually strong because it failed to catch Osama Bin Laden, and that a return to a combination of police and foreign intelligence building to fight terrorism would be a more effective way to protect the nation.

Well argued, Susan Rice. But! The one point she needed to hit out of the park was not about Democrats being stronger than Republicans on defense. She needed to focus the debate on the key issue that Jonathan Capehart raised: that Americans' want to discuss that we are 'a nation of laws' and the Habeaus ruling focused the civic debate on this issue. Why did Obama's adviser not make this point as clearly as she needed to?

At a fundamental level it does not seem that the Obama campaign--or the Democrats in general, for that matter, truly believe (yet) that right-wing pundits use violent arguments to tie up the debate. It is more likely that Democrats still think the right is using 'fear'--a much more vague and hard to define concept which leads communications strategists to try to push back with 'strength' instead of keeping the discussion in a more productive, more meaningful frame (e.g., 'a nation of laws'). As a result, Susan Rice--as deft as she was--nonetheless left the debate straddling two issues, not quite wrestling control back from Giuliani and Gingrich who played the perfect Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

What the debate needed, and still needs, is a high-profile Democrat assert the very point that Jonathan Capehart made (a point, incidentally, that can also be found in Chapters 2 and 8 of Outright Barbarous): (1) We are a nation of laws and (2) we protect the nation from terrorism (and other violent threats) by tracking down chains of responsibility.

When the debate is approached that way, the debate stays grounded in the very topic the nation wants to discuss, and stays focused on the problems Americans seek to solve.

In this case, one has to conclude that the media is more aware than the Democratic Party as to how the right is using violent rhetoric to undermine the debate--an effort which undermines the work of journalists and candidates alike.