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Dan Morain: Joe Biden calls for some political civility in uncivil times

Dan Morain: Joe Biden calls for some political civility in uncivil times

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Donald Trump reacted to a protester at one of his rallies by imagining a long-ago time when such a man would have been carried out on a stretcher.

“I’d like to punch him in the face,” the Republican presidential front-runner said.

Struggling to catch up, Sen. Marco Rubio ridiculed the size of Trump’s hands the other day and suggested that Trump had wet his pants.

Last Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden opened a speech to California Democrats by recounting the state’s politicians who had been friends of his son, Beau Biden, who died last year of brain cancer. “I’ll only say this once, but — um.” Biden didn’t get to finish the thought.

A protester unfurled a banner declaring that Beau got cancer from using a cellphone.

Having been assigned to oversee a research push against cancer, Biden had spent that morning at the University of California at San Francisco with cancer survivors, researchers and physicians. Not one mentioned cellphones; there is no link to cancer.

Strong arms grabbed the protester. Whatever Biden thought of the stunningly heartless protest, he was gracious.

“That’s all right. Let him go,” he said from the podium. “Let him go. It’s OK. It is all right. It’s OK. My son, Beau, would love that part. No, really, thank you. It is not a problem. Hey, let’s not act like Republicans. I ain’t Donald Trump.”

Later, Biden got to his most important point: the descent of American politics: “Our people are not the problem. Our politics is the problem. It has grown so petty, so personal, so angry, so ugly.”

Science supports what our ears and eyes tell us. The Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that “partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive than at any point in the last two decades.” Interparty marriage, too, is becoming taboo; in the 1960s, 35 percent of couples included a Democrat and a Republican, noted a 2014 Stanford-Dartmouth study. Now about 12 percent do.

Biden attributed the decline of civility to the influence of big money. Whatever the cause, the impact is pernicious.

“America can’t take this much longer,” he said. “Consensus is necessary. ‘Compromise’ is not a dirty word.”

Biden also told a story about his early days in the Senate, in 1972. He was 29 and his first wife and baby daughter had been killed in a car accident. Senators were debating what would become the Americans with Disabilities Act. Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina conservative, took to the floor to denounce it.

Senate Leader Mike Mansfield saw that Biden was angry and asked why. Biden ranted that Helms had no sympathy for disabled people. Mansfield replied that Helms, before joining the Senate, had read in the Raleigh newspaper about an orphan with cerebral palsy and had adopted him.

Mansfield, the elder, was trying to teach Biden, the young senator, a lesson: “It is always appropriate to question another man or woman’s judgment. It’s never appropriate to judge the motive, because you don’t know what it is,” Biden recounted.

That doesn’t happen now. Now politicians question motives.

Last Saturday, Biden, now the elder, was telling younger politicians the difference between sticking to principles and threatening to punch opponents in the face. Let’s hope they listened.

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