Years of blogging, briefing, debating, and public speaking have driven home to me one point -- a point that CNN's Michael Smerconish articulated perfectly last Friday. Personal attacks reveal the weakness of a person's position on the issues. Rudy Guiliani's recent attack on President Obama's patriotism is merely the most recent example. This is what people do when they cannot rationally defend their substantive beliefs.
In an appearance with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on February 18 former Mayor Guiliani asserted "I do not believe that the President loves America, He doesn't love you and he doesn't love me. He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country."
This is but the latest in a long line of vicious ad hominem attacks on this President not simply by anonymous members of the public but by leading political commentators. In his statement Smerconish reminded us of Donald Trump's repeated assertions that the President is not an American citizen, a view known as "birtherism" that spread to most members of the Republican party; Ann Coulter's use of a vile epithet to insult the President's intelligence; and Sarah Palin's "shuck and jive" remark in describing the President's demeanor. There are uncounted more: earlier this month Erick Erickson wrote that "Barack Obama is not, in any meaningful way, a Christian and I am not sure that he needs to continue the charade," and three days ago Dinesh D'Souza tweeted referring to President Obama as a "boy" from the "ghetto."
None of these insults has any basis in reality; nevertheless, I choose not to attack the honesty or integrity of the persons who made these statements.
But what is crystal clear is that these statements reveal a paucity of ideas. People who resort to insults and invective have nothing of any value to say about the issues of the day. They substitute opprobrium for policy.
This is why the President's political opponents still do not have a plan for universal health care. It is why they do not have a coherent strategy to deal with Syria or Russia. It is why they deny that climate change is occurring, or that global warming has anything to do with the burning of fossil fuels. It is why they cannot agree on what our policies should be on regulating big banking or formulating education policy. All that they can agree on is that the President is scum.
Smerconish said it perfectly. "Real patriots [or leaders or lawyers or thoughtful people] voice opinions based on substance, not smears."
This is a principle that I strive to live up to -- it is a practice that I exemplify for my law students and that I train them in. When I write a brief or debate someone on universal health care or same sex marriage or immigration or affirmative action or gun control or any other issue I do not attack my opponent's motivations. I do not challenge that person's integrity or intelligence or patriotism. I challenge their ideas, their reasoning -- the internal consistency of their arguments and the consequences of their policies. I employ science, economics, law, and logic to persuade our audience of the correctness of my positions. That is what a good lawyer does. That is effective advocacy. That is the essence of professionalism.
Ad hominem attacks on me or anyone else are immaterial to the issues we debate. My heart and my ability are irrelevant to the resolution of the problems we must solve. What matters are the solutions we must develop to address the challenges that we face.
Finally, those who openly acknowledge those issues, problems, and challenges facing America and who honestly debate them on the merits do not love this country less than those who would rather proclaim their love of country and attack the patriotism of those with whom they disagree.