Collins: Time to soften political rhetoric

Posted Feb. 22, 2011, at 1:23 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 22, 2011, at 9:58 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The emergence of round-the-clock news and networks that cater to people at the far edges of the political spectrum have hardened political lines and made compromise more difficult, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said Tuesday as she called for a restoration of civility in American politics.

Last month’s shootings in Tucson, Ariz., that left six people dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords wounded spurred a discussion of the need for a more civil tone in public debate, the Maine Republican said in a speech at the Cumberland Club in Portland.

“That discussion is long overdue,” Collins said in the latest of the Joshua Chamberlain Lecture Series. Collins, who with fellow Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe has a reputation for her moderate politics, said that for too many in politics today, the goal of achieving solutions has been replaced by drawing sharp distinctions and scoring political points.

Collins’ speech came a day after an announcement that former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — a Republican and a Democrat — will be honorary co-chairmen of a new national institute to promote civility in political discourse.

It also came as a verbal skirmish breaks out between Maine Republican Party leaders and Democratic legislative leaders over a now-defunct weatherization program run by the Maine Green Energy Alliance. The exchanges have turned personal early in a legislative session that started with promises of bipartisan cooperation.

At the congressional level, Collins gave two examples of what she considers “decidedly uncivil acts, designed not to reveal the truth but simply to cause offense.” She cited a Republican congressman’s yelling of “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress in 2009, and a Democrat’s summary of the GOP’s health care plan as “die quickly.”

Nationally, the “destruction of collegiality” has progressed since last year’s elections, Collins said.

“The personal attacks in campaigns have detrimental effects that last long after Election Day. And the seemingly constant campaign cycle, aided and abetted by cable and radio shows whose ratings may depend on reaching small but highly partisan members of the electorate, coarsens the debate,” Collins said.

Collins said she’s confident that incivility in Washington “is not likely to change until those outside Washington demand it. What gets rewarded gets done, and for those of us in Congress, re-election is the ultimate reward.”

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