A Nice Change in Presidential Politics: Civility Trounces Sparring

05/09/2007 04:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The instruction given to Senator Hillary Clinton was a familiar one: "Senator Clinton, 30-second rebuttal." But the response she gave was radical: "Well, I think that what Barack said is right."

We're referring, of course, to the recent Democratic presidential debates. Senator Clinton was asked to comment on Senator Obama's statement that the Democrats needed to continue to build a strong coalition in Congress that could override a presidential veto and end the Iraq War. The surprise was not that Clinton agreed with Obama on this issue, but that she would so blithely acknowledge his rightness during a debate.

After all, aren't debates supposed to be shouting matches, or at least fierce competitions in which the object is to make yourself look good by crushing your opponents?

Apparently not--at least if we are to judge by the recent Democratic and Republican debates. After such a bitter and contentious presidential election season in 2004, it's extremely encouraging to see the current candidates conducting themselves with so much civility and respect. "I'm looking at a bunch of winners right here," Joseph Biden said of his opponents at the Democratic debate. "These are quality candidates," Sen. Sam Brownback said of his counterparts in the Ronald Regan Library. "I think what Dennis just said is extremely important," Senator Chris Dodd said as he echoed Rep. Dennis Kucinich's concerns about reproductive choice.

This tone of respectful collegiality--the use of first names, the acknowledgment of opponents' ideas--was particularly noticeable during the Democratic debates, but the Republicans gave due credit as well, as when former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani told the audience that he followed former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson's welfare-to-work program. More importantly, the candidates refrained from the cheap shots so frequently found in political contests. When Giuliani gave an extremely vague answer to his position on abortion--saying that it would be "OK" if Roe v. Wade were repealed--moderator Chris Matthews grilled him on his apparent reversal, but none of his opponents did. They simply stated their own position and moved on. As with the Democrats, the GOP candidates were far more interested in introducing the American people to their own views than attacking those of their opponents.

The grand exception was Democrat Mike Gravel, who told moderator Brian Williams that his Democratic opponents "frightened" him, and asked Senator Obama "Who do you want to nuke?"

Gravel's outspokenness may have landed him a coveted guest spot on The Colbert Report, but we think the real winners are all the other candidates, who kept the discussion focused on the issues, rather than personal snipes.

Now, we're nice but we're not naïve. There is a long road ahead, and as the race gets tighter it's going to be increasingly difficult for the candidates to resist the lure of negative campaigning. But for the time being at least, it appears that most all of the candidates understand that they have nothing to gain--and everything to lose--by going negative.

Of course, this is partly due to the fact that for both sets of candidates, the real opponent wasn't standing across the podium. Sure Chris Dodd and Mike Huckabee want to win their parties' nominations, but it was clear that almost all the current presidential hopefuls see the larger picture: Getting someone from their party in the White House. Both the Democratic and the Republican candidates know that contentious in-fighting only gives ammunition to the opposing party.

They are also no doubt shrewd enough to realize that whoever wins their party's nomination will likely choose one of his current opponents as a running mate. In politics, as in business, it is unwise to view your opponent as your enemy--since today's adversary is frequently tomorrow's ally. So the Democrats focused on their opposition to the Bush administration's Iraq policies, and the Republicans opted not to brawl over whether or not we evolved from apes.

Once again, we're polite, but we're not Pollyannas. Mudslinging, slander and dirty tricks have been part of the American political process for a long time, and we doubt that these tactics are going the way of the dinosaur just yet. But we are extremely heartened to see this new spirit in Washington, and we hope that the candidates will continue to display the great class that they had during the debates. As Senator Brownback said, "We've got a chance to debate ideas. And we win as a party when we run on ideas, big ideas and principles."

That's how we win as a nation, too.