During a late September gathering with voters to talk about jobs and the economy, Scott Turner of Richmond, Va., had something more elementary than the unemployment rate on his mind when he posed a question to President Obama:
"Is there any hope for us returning to civility in our discourse?" Turner asked.
Six weeks later — at the end of a bitterly fought campaign that ended poorly for Obama and the Democrats — a chastened president professed optimism. "I do believe there is hope for civility," Obama said. "I do believe there is hope for progress."
To that end, Obama on Nov. 30 will host new congressional leaders for a private meeting at the White House. How it goes — particularly between Obama and incoming Republican House speaker John Boehner of Ohio — will set the stage for new congressional debates over a range of crucial issues: how to create jobs, whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts, challenges to the health care overhaul Democrats pushed through Congress this year, and more.
As the 2012 presidential campaign looms and the economy stays stagnant, political tensions are high amid profound disagreements over the role and size of government. Moderates in both parties are launching a new push for civility, but the loudest voices tend to come from the extremes. The Tea Party movement that helped Republicans take over the House and narrow Democrats' advantage in the Senate was inspired largely by conservatives angered by the growth of government, most recently under Obama.
History suggests it will be tough to change the tone in Washington. From the bitter election of 1800 to today, attacks and false accusations have been staples of American political contests. This year, though, was particularly intense — and offered a preview of what's to come as the parties fight for control of the White House.
After a hyper-partisan campaign during which Obama cast his political foes as "enemies" and a Tea Party billboard compared him to Adolf Hitler, "it's going to be an exceptional, exceptional challenge" for politicians to work together, says former Republican congressman Jim Leach of Iowa, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Even after Obama issued his invitation to the White House meeting, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Republicans should focus on a starkly political goal: to "deny President Obama a second term."
"The gloves are off," University of Texas presidential historian Bruce Buchanan says. "Ultimately, politics is a substitute for war. ... Is civility impossible? No. Is it likely? No."
Some voters, activists from both parties and former members of Congress say they've heard enough pitched political posturing. They say they are appalled by the nasty discourse, sick of attack ads and disgusted with a political culture that values winning at any cost while leaving important work undone.
Hostility Harmful to America's Democracy
"There is a growing consensus that this negativity, this hostility is harmful to our democracy," says Daniel Shea of the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College, which has been tracking voter concern about incivility in politics throughout the year. The center's new poll, released this month, finds that nearly three in four registered voters believe the fall election was one of the nastiest they'd seen.
And the 2012 presidential campaign is just beginning.
"I'm not so naive to think everybody will put politics aside" until 2012, Obama said the morning after his party's broad defeat at the polls. "But I do hope to make progress on the very serious problems facing us right now. And that's going to require all of us, including me, to work harder at building consensus."
Leaders in both parties will be prodded by calls to end the incivility. Among the new efforts:
•No Labels, a group of moderate Republicans, Democrats and independents, will launch a campaign Dec. 13 to try to persuade politicians to cast aside their party labels and work together to solve the nation's pressing problems of stubbornly high unemployment, runaway spending and mounting deficits.
The group's leaders include deficit hawk David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general, and John Avlon, author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America; Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank; and Mark McKinnon, a political strategist who helped George W. Bush win the White House.
"We have a crisis of governance," the group's website says, urging supporters to call out "the 'gotcha politics,' the character assassination and innuendo, the focus on the trivial which passes today for political discourse."
•A 50-city "American Civility Tour" headlined by Leach promotes civility in public discourse.
The former 30-year congressman, who has taken his tour to more than 40 states, says members of Congress and the White House must quit bickering and focus on big issues: tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of 2010 and approval of the budget.
"The sides are more polarized," Leach says. As a result, the political system has become "dysfunctional."
•Former Members of Congress for Common Ground, a group of 135 ex-senators and representatives from both parties, this fall sent a plea for civility to every congressional candidate.
David Skaggs, a Democrat who represented Colorado in the House from 1987 to 1999, says he's encouraged by the growing "ferment" in favor of civility.
His own efforts were only a modest success. In 1997, he and former Republican House member Ray LaHood of Illinois, now Obama's Transportation secretary, started the Bipartisan Congressional Retreat, a biennial event to foster civility.
Skaggs said the sessions nurtured trust, but attendance waned over the years and the retreats ended in 2003.
Other recent efforts to foster civility have fallen flat.
A year ago, Mark DeMoss, a conservative Republican and one-time adviser to GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, teamed with Clinton White House lawyer Lanny Davis on something called the Civility Project. In May, they sent letters to all 535 members of Congress and 50 governors with a simple request: sign a pledge to stay civil.
Nastiness is Bad on Both Sides
DeMoss was motivated by some of the ugly attacks on Romney's religion — he's Mormon — during the 2008 campaign.
"A lot of what I saw aimed at Obama bothered me, too, even though I'm not with him on pretty much anything," said DeMoss, referring to false accusations that have ricocheted around the Internet that Obama is Muslim and wasn't born in the United States.
It was a wasted effort. Of 585 pledges sent out, only two came back signed — from Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.
"It's bad on both sides," DeMoss says. "I'm discouraged."
A building nastiness
The nastiness has been brewing for some time.
In the fall of 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., stunned fellow lawmakers during Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress on his health care legislation. When the president said the government would not provide coverage for illegal immigrants, Wilson shouted out, "You lie!" from the floor of the House.
The House voted to reprimand Wilson, but conservative radio talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh called him a hero and money poured into Wilson's campaign coffers.
This fall's campaigns continued the trend:
•In Florida, Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson ran a TV ad calling Daniel Webster, his Republican opponent, "Taliban Dan" because of some of Webster's purported views on women's issues.
Factcheck.org found that Grayson, who lost the race on Election Day, had manipulated video of Webster talking about a passage in the Bible compelling women to submit to their husbands to suggest that Webster supported that notion. Instead, Webster was urging husbands to reject the idea.
•In Nevada, Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle told a conservative radio host that she defends gun rights against "tyranny." Of her opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Angle added, "I'm hoping that we're not getting to Second Amendment remedies" in dealing with "the Harry Reid problems." Reid was re-elected.
•In Indiana, the House race between Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly and Republican state Rep. Jackie Walorski was so ugly the South Bend Tribune refused to endorse either. The candidates "disgraced themselves," an editorial said. Donnelly won.
The satirical newspaper The Onion took note of the post-election damage last week. Over a photo of a lone congressman standing amid the rubble in a burning capital city, the headline read: "Last Remaining Politician Must Rebuild Entire Government Following Bloodiest Midterm Election in American History."
The recent intemperance would hardly have shocked our forefathers, though.
"You've always had scurrilous nastiness," historian Buchanan says. "Look at the election of 1800," when Thomas Jefferson defeated President John Adams after a campaign that featured personal attacks, charges of voting irregularities and ultimately, 36 congressional ballots cast before a winner was determined.
Or the infamous 1838 duel in which a congressman from Kentucky fatally shot a fellow congressman from Maine, promoting congressional passage of a ban on dueling in Washington.
Media "Echo Chamber" Perpetuates Hostility
The big difference today — besides the fact that lawmakers no longer challenge each other to duels — is "the media echo chamber," Buchanan says of the 24/7 cable news cycle, talk radio and blogs, all of which fuel discord.
Today, Common Ground says, politicians "who far exceed the bounds of normal and respectful discourse are ... lionized, treated as celebrities, rewarded with cable television appearances and enlisted as magnets for campaign fundraisers."
Aiming to counter — and mock — that trend, political satirist Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, hosted a "Rally to Restore Sanity" in the nation's capital last month.
Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, says commentators on the left and right add to the problem. A big step toward civility, he jokes, would be to take conservative talkers Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and liberals Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow off the air. "Put them in a sack and drop them off a bridge."
Civilized in Delaware
There are bright spots. Take Delaware, home to one of the fall's closely watched Senate races between Democrat Chris Coons, who won, and Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell.
Two days after waging a fierce campaign for the state's open Senate seat, Coons and O'Donnell got together as part of a state tradition of burying the hatchet — literally — after an election.
It's called "Return Day," and it dates to the 1790s. Candidates ride together in a horse-drawn carriage through the town of Georgetown before a town crier reads the election results. Then, party leaders bury a hatchet in sand. "It's bad form not to show up," says Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.
He says the civil relationships fostered by the event have "borne fruit," and he's encouraging the White House to host House and Senate leaders at Camp David, out of the Washington glare. "Just spend time getting to know each other" and focusing on issues ripe for agreement, Carper says. "There's a lot of upside to it."
LaHood agrees. "When people get to know one another ... it's much more difficult in a purely partisan way to trash the other person." He has been calling fellow Republicans since the polls closed Nov. 2, pressing them to work toward bipartisanship.
LaHood says he's convinced Obama really does want more civility and cooperation in politics. "It's in his DNA," LaHood says. "It's not just a political slogan."
Turner says that's why he backed Obama in 2008. Now, he's disappointed in both parties. The "civil war we see on TV," he says, "looks childish and immature, and it's not going to solve our problems."