Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Opinion

Column: Rubio's important speech

Mitch McConnell's decision to silence Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor drew massive media attention — and outrage among partisans of all stripes. By contrast, few people paid much attention to the speech Florida Sen. Marco Rubio gave in the aftermath of the shushing of Warren. They should.

Rubio's speech was a plea for civility in the Senate, a warning that if civilized debate dies in the Senate, it will die in the broader society too. It's an important address — and one well worth spending eight minutes of your life listening to. (Watch it at http://tbtim.es/rubiowarren.)

A few lines that really stood out to me:

• "I don't know of a civilization in the history of the world that's been able to solve its problems when half the people in a country absolutely hate the other half of the people in that country."

• "We are becoming a society incapable of having debate anymore."

• "We are reaching a point in this republic where we are not going to be able to solve the simplest of issues because everyone is putting themselves in a corner where everyone hates everybody."

• "What's at stake here tonight … is not simply some rule but the ability of the most important nation on Earth to debate in a productive and respectful way the pressing issues before it."

It's easy, of course, to roll your eyes at Rubio. (After all, in the end, he himself voted with his fellow Republicans to silence Warren.) And, of course, Rubio is someone of considerable political ambition who clearly believes it is in his long-term best interests to establish himself as a voice for civility and reasoned debate during his time in the Senate.

But simply because Rubio is a politician doesn't mean that what he says should be dismissed out of hand. What he is reacting to is something I hear time and time again when I talk to people about politics. When did "reasonable people can disagree" stop being something we believed in? Why can't genuine debate not descend into name-calling? Why is confrontation the only way the two parties — and their leading politicians — seem to interact these days?

The answer is that confrontation is what energizes the bases of the two parties. And energizing those bases is what politicians spend most of their time focusing on these days. Unfortunately, the byproduct of all that confrontation is an increasing cynicism and disgust among the large swaths of people who aren't part of either base.

The election of President Donald Trump seems to have proven that those people don't matter all that much, that the way to win is to relentlessly vilify the other side so that your people are mad enough at the other side to turn out to vote.

Rubio is positioning himself as the counterweight to that strategy, betting big on the idea that the Trump era won't last forever. It's a noble effort although one with a very uncertain future.

© 2017 Washington Post

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