Pastor Rick Warren yesterday told the Orange County Register that there won’t be a repeat of 2008’s “civil forum” between the major parties’ presidential candidates.
There are conflicting reports about why the gig won’t take place. According to Politico, both President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney declined to participate — problematic, it should go without saying.
But Warren claims he’s turned off by the campaign’s rampant negativity thus far:
We created the civil forums to promote civility and personal respect between people with major differences … The forums are meant to be a place where people of goodwill can seriously disagree on significant issues without being disagreeable or resorting to personal attack and name-calling. But that is not the climate of today’s campaign. I’ve never seen more irresponsible personal attacks, mean-spirited slander, and flat-out dishonest attack ads, and I don’t expect that tone to change before the election …
It would be hypocritical to pretend civility for one evening only to have the name-calling return the next day.
Quite apart from Warren’s oversensitive recoil from the tone of the campaign — all things equal, I don’t think it’s worse than any other presidential contest in my lifetime — I’m underwhelmed by both the utility and substance of Warren’s forum.
Just about the only thing I remember from the ’08 exchange was Obama’s and McCain’s response to Warren’s query about which issue they had seriously rethought over the last 10 years. Obama said that the 1996 welfare reform law turned out better than he’d expected. A thoughtful allowance, I thought at the time. And yet, one Great Recession later, and welfare reform doesn’t look like such great shakes to the Obama administration.
Was his considered change of heart, then, merely provisional?
McCain was more nakedly tactical. He took Warren’s invitation to side-step the “flip-flop” trap and replied, “Offshore drilling. We gotta drill now and we gotta drill here…” At that moment, it seemed clear that, for Warren, civility meant letting campaign talking points go unchallenged.
Warren’s (lack of) skills as a thought-provoking moderator aside, there is the question of whether a suburban evangelical megachurch represents an appropriately neutral territory for a presidential “forum.” Warren’s loaded tweet last year that “HALF of America pays NO taxes. Zero. So they’re happy for tax rates to be raised on the other half that DOES pay taxes” would seem to suggest otherwise. But Obama’s cultivation of the self-promoting Warren — tapping him for the Inauguration invocation, for instance — was bound to be a two-way street.
I would say that Rick Warren is presumptuous to think that he’s the guy who should broker a covenant of civility between our clashing partisan titans. (No doubt I would choose him over Piers Morgan, for whatever that’s worth.) But Warren’s fatal presumption is that this interregnum of civility should occur in front of a camera.
In the era of cable news-induced braincell annihilation, that’s the last place it would occur.