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Changing the tone in Washington

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February 22, 2006

Washington is all about tone these days. The tone is all about name-calling. And today, here in our Department of Think Big But Start Small punditry, we are proposing one way of changing the tone — for one day.

We will be proposing that Washington adopt a National Change the Tone Day.

But first, remind yourself of why we need this change. Just listen to the sounds of negativity that reverberate through the corridors of power and canyons of Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street — and then through the nonstop cable news-talk shows into our homes and our lives.

From the right you hear the sound of House Republicans, yukking it up at a Maryland resort this month. They rallied their sagging spirits with a video depicting “the Evil Democrat Empire,” calling House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi “Darth Nancy.” A few weeks before, their national party aired an ad calling Democrats the party of “retreat and defeat.”

From the left comes the sound of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, variously lambasting Republicans as a “white Christian party,” saying “a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives.” And so on.

From the center comes the sound of, well, mainly the sound of silence. Centrists and common-sensists don’t get many calls from talk-show bookers. The word is out that reasonableness will bore you. So politicians compete for your attention the way pro wrestlers compete for your affection _ with accusations in high decibel. Washington’s pols have even learned the art of pounding the mat in feigned pain.

Some who wallow in the status quo will say there is no way we can ever make things more civil. If so, we’d better at least comply with the truth-in-labeling law by changing the name of Washington, D.C., to Washington, H.C. _ as in Hate City.

But today we are arguing that even politicians can change. Still, we must acknowledge that Washington’s politicians are addicted to negativity. So we are proposing a cure that starts with one day at a time.

Washington needs to begin by creating a National Change the Tone Day.

On that day, every politician in the nation’s capital will agree to speak only about policy _ positive solutions to our problems. There must be no discussion of which party or leader is to blame for the mess we face today. No name-calling, no blame-saying, no I-told-you-so-ing. No using first names or nicknames as terms of derision. (For one day, all the familiar shortcuts that are often uttered with implied tones of insult must be avoided; “W” must be only a letter of the alphabet, “Hillary” just a first name shared by many; and so on.

Just straight talk about solutions. Real politicians discussing real policy ideas that are designed to solve the real problems we face as a country and as ordinary citizens. Out of this may come some proposals that may bring added security to our lives by addressing the security challenges we face at all levels: Global security, homeland security, economic security, health-care security, job security and, yes, maybe even Social Security.

A National Change the Tone Day could also yield a number of ancillary positive results. Politicians may discover that people actually like being talked to _ and not talked down to. Also, that people will pay attention to detailed discussions of the problems we face and solutions that just might work. Politicians may rediscover that people actually paid attention when Ross Perot used his flip-card charts and graphs to discuss problems _ and that people turned away from Perot only when they realized that after educating us about the problems he really had no solutions to propose.

This much is for sure: Politicians will discover that clear explanations of problems and policies are hard work. That it was much easier when all they did was play the blame game.

Now that the rules for the politicians are set, we need to focus on the pundits. Their gigs on the talk shows will have to change _ for just one day. The usual political babble by which we make our livings must give way to informed analysis of policy alternatives. Either that or take the day off.

Now all we have to do is choose a date for National Change the Tone Day. Some might consider May 1, on the grounds that this is a May Day call for help. I tend to favor April 15 _ the day our income tax is normally due. That’s one day we all want to hear something good from the government we have just bought.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)

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