Linda & Richard Eyre: Will presidential hopefuls fight or have civil debates?

Published: Sunday, Jan. 22 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate former Sen. Rick Santorum (L), next to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, makes a point a debate at the North Charleston Coliseum January 19, 2012 in Charleston, South Carolina. The debate, hosted by CNN and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, is the final debate before South Carolina voters head to the polls for their primary January 21.

John Moore, Getty Images

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» View our political blog, with live updates and analysis of the South Carolina primary.

In our home, we worked mightily at trying to teach our children the difference between the destruction and danger of "mean, fighting arguments" and the education and stimulation of passionate but thoughtful "debates."

Interestingly, we may be about to face a presidential general election where which of these two directions we take could affect our country for generations.

It's the same in a national campaign as it is in a household argument. If we take the low road, it can be deeply divisive and destructive, and if we take the high road, it can actually educate and unite.

Of course, Mitt Romney still has to secure the nomination, but a Romney-Obama general election could become one of two drastically different things:

1. A flash point of class warfare, pitting rich against poor; a bloody and negative free-for-all in which people take sides and attack each other — from the top of the ticket to the hostile and divided electorate.

2. A stimulating, educational debate between two principled and mutually respectful candidates who present sharply differing visions for this country with a tone that teaches voters both about more conservative free enterprise and about more progressive policies and gives all Americans a choice between thoughtful but different philosophies.

The first could literally push America over the cliff toward all-out class warfare, while the second could defuse dangerous animosities and bring this divided country together.

Which of these two we get may be determined within days of Romney becoming the presumptive nominee. If he attacks President Obama personally or uses 30-second sound-bite ads that oversimplify and distort the president's goals and record, and if President Obama "does likewise" by attacking Romney's tax returns and private equity background and portraying him as an "exploiter," then No. 1 will happen and will throw fuel on the embers of class warfare.

In this scenario, the whole campaign will deepen the divides in this country. In fact, the campaign itself could do more harm to America than the eventual winner could do good in his entire term.

On the other hand, if Romney's first ad after his acknowledgement as the Republican candidate is a clear, thoughtful, 30-minute documentary on who he is and on his vision for America, done with respect both for President Obama and the presidency and for the intelligence of the voting public, it could set a "high road" tone that the president would feel that he had to match.

Instead of degenerating to name-calling and personal attacks, the campaign could actually evolve into an intelligent debate that would teach all Americans more about the possibilities for our future and about the credible points from both the left and the right that deserve to be aired and thought about and weighed in the decision of each individual voter.

Because the fact is that both the tea party on the right and the Occupy movement on the left are saying some things that all voters should hear (particularly the tea party's advocacy of free enterprise and limited government and the Occupy movement's concern that CEOs earn a thousand times what the lowest-paid worker in their companies are paid). And perhaps even more importantly, the majority of voters that live somewhere between the far right and the far left have some points that should be heard also — over the loud shrillness from both sides.

So let's hope for that — for a campaign that educates us, that respects us and that we can watch unfold with our children while teaching them the privilege of being part of the greatest democracy ever formed by mankind.

The Eyres' three latest books are "The Entitlement Trap," "5 Spiritual Solutions" and "The Three Deceivers." Richard and Linda are New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Read Linda Eyre's blog at www.deseretnews.com/blog/81/A-World-of-Good.html and visit the Eyres anytime at www.TheEyres.com or www.valuesparenting.com. Listen to their weekly radio show on Mondays at 4:30 at www.byuradio.org.

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