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Steering clear of negative attacks in Tampa, Republicans claim the high ground

  • Aug. 28, 2012: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.AP

  • Reuters

  • REUTERS

When I was a kid one of my favorite plays was Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s “Inherit the Wind.” It’s a fictionalized version of the Scopes “Monkey” trial, when a Tennessee biology teacher was arrested for daring to teach evolution to his biology class. Written in 1955, it’s dramatic and exciting. 

It’s also a thinly disguised allegory of the clash between conservatism in its McCarthyite phase, and the era’s liberals as they liked to see themselves. The liberals in the play, like defense attorney Henry Drummond, are all cool, measured, and rational, and able to see both sides of an issue. The teacher’s evangelical opponents, led by three-time unsuccessful presidential candidate and all-around blowhard Matthew Brady, are a ravening, howling mob of ignorant rednecks, filled with fear and hate. 

That’s, of course, how liberals still see the world. It’s emblazoned on every DARWIN car sign. But what we’ve seen in this presidential campaign is that if anyone is playing the hysterical ignorant redneck, it’s the liberals. 

What we saw very clearly last night in the speeches at the Republic National Convention, from Ann Romney’s moving commentary on her life with Mitt, to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s “We have never been victims of destiny, we have always been masters of our own,” is that conservatives are now the calm, measured voices of reason as well as compassion. 

In fact, they’re the only rational adults left in the room. 

Although the media never noticed, it’s actually been the hallmark of this current conservative revolution from the start, from the earliest Tea Party rallies in 2009 to Paul Ryan’s budget plan last March, and his calm, measured defense of it today. Compare the behavior of your typical Tea Party gathering or a Republican candidate’s dissection of ObamaCare, with an Occupy Wall Street demonstration or a Huffington Post column, and you’ll see what I mean. 

It’s what made Missouri Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin such a negative standout. His shrill ignorance and self-righteousness are now the exception on the conservative side; whereas they’ve become the rule among Democrats. 

Who’s the mob from the gutter now? After all, it’s liberal actress Ellen Barkin who hoped that Hurricane Isaac “kills every pro-life, xenophobic, gay-bashing SOB” in the Republican Party, and liberal union boss Richard Trumka who howls at a screaming crowd, “Let’s take those SOBs out!” meaning Republicans. Instead of the Rev. Jeremiah Brown in the 1955 play working his congregation into a raging frenzy, it’s a Democratic vice president who howls, “They want to put y’all back in chains!” 

Instead of KKK members, it’s liberal commentators who use words like “n-erization” and “Caucasistan.” And instead of white policemen beating marchers in Selma, it’s liberal thugs from SEIU who beat black Tea Party activist Kenneth Gladney in St. Louis back in April 2009.

Meanwhile, the president’s own campaign calls his Republican opponent a felon, and encourages a man to accuse him of murdering his wife. 

Make no mistake, there’s still some method to their madness. The Chris Matthews and Joe Bidens of this world are hoping that with their vicious demagoguery, with each attack more outrageous than the other, they’ll provoke Republicans into responding in kind, and can drag them down into the gutter with them. 

My advice is, don’t go there. Criticism of Obama, even harsh criticism of what he’s done and what his radical vision of America might mean in a second term, is fine, even needed. But a GOP that’s won the moral and rational high ground needs to stay there.

It’s worth noting that the title of that 1955 play comes from Proverbs 11:29: He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind, and the fool shall be servant to the wise at heart.

Last night demonstrated once and for all who are the “wise at heart” in this presidential campaign, and who has chosen to trouble his own house, instead.

Historian Arthur Herman is author "The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization" (Random House 2013).