Focusing on the issues

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, August 25, 2012

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I knew a reporter who loved to argue. If you raised an issue, he had an instant, fully-formed opinion on it and would defend it to his last drop of saliva.

He usually won – but during the time I worked with him, his friend-count diminished steadily. When he left after eight years, only a handful of people came to his farewell party, although he’d done some really good work in that community.

Winning arguments doesn’t generally win you many friends.

Bob Buckel

The fact is, most people don’t like to argue and will eventually just avoid people who do. But even those argumentative types don’t truly seem to enjoy it – it’s more like a reflex, a tic, a twitch they just can’t seem to shake.

I’m a lousy arguer. For a journalist with a supposedly incisive mind, I tend to take things and people at face value. I tend to assume everyone is honest and knows what they’re talking about. My wife blames my West Texas upbringing.

Many people don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable – how to debate issues without descending into personal attacks. The person who can present an unpopular idea and not get testy when attacked is rare. Those who can turn a feeding frenzy into a discussion and turn enemies into friends are geniuses of the highest order.

This arises from the political season, of course.

Polls show that almost everyone is unhappy with Congress – yet most incumbents can hang onto their jobs as long as they want them. All they have to do is avoid scandals, hire good staff and show up in the district now and then. Not posting self-portraits on the Internet helps.

It’s easy to get all steamed up about an institution, but most of us don’t have it in us to attack a person we know, who has a face, a family, a voice. If a Congressmember can distance him or herself from the institution and let voters see a human being, most will empathize and offer our support at some level.

Sadly, the president seems to remain an institution and therefore, open to attack.

I have no problem with humor and satire, and most presidents are happy to have their own comic impersonator on Saturday Night Live. That’s been part of our country’s culture forever. Comedians are not the problem. But pundits and professional talkers at both ends of the political spectrum aren’t funny as they attack the other side in the most bitter, hateful and mean-spirited way.

It’s disrespectful, often untrue and embarrassing to me as an American. Why can’t we criticize policies and leave the person intact? Why can’t someone who disagrees with us still be a good person who just holds a different opinion? No one should have to endure what our presidents and other leaders endure.

This, of course, is why so many don’t vote. It’s why, when I look at a ballot, my first thought is often, “Is this the best we can do?” It’s a wonder we can get anyone to seek public office, much less the best and the brightest.

But in this presidential campaign, this year, there’s a glimmer of hope.

For some reason, since Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate, I’ve heard more serious, substantive debate about Medicare, Social Security and the budget than I’ve heard in a long time. I don’t know that much about Mr. Ryan personally, but it seems that having this serious, brainy, conservative policy wonk on the ticket has moved both sides to lay out the issues that confront our country and talk about solutions.

The two sides have vastly different solutions, and America has a choice to make. But at least we’re talking about solutions, attacking the problems and not each other.

I can’t argue with that.

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