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Commentary: Don't let politics get personal

  • Story Highlights
  • Jason Chaffetz: Politics involves fighting for what you believe in
  • He says that doesn't make it acceptable to launch personal attacks
  • Chaffetz: I condemned my own party's video attack on Nancy Pelosi
  • He says he opposes same-sex marriage but wants the issue to be debated
By Jason Chaffetz
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican, represents the 3rd District of Utah in Congress and is appearing in CNN.com's "Freshman Year" series, along with Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado.

Jason Chaffetz says he's opposed personal attacks, including an RNC video on Nancy Pelosi.

Jason Chaffetz says he's opposed personal attacks, including an RNC video on Nancy Pelosi.

(CNN) -- I knew when I ran for Congress that fighting would be part of the job description. I came here to fight for what I believe in, to fight to be heard and to fight for the interests of the people I serve. The problem is, so did everyone else.

And with competing priorities, beliefs, constituencies and approaches, there's no way we can all agree. Fighting, or more accurately "debate," is a natural and beneficial part of the legislative process.

The trick is knowing where to draw the line between productive debate and destructive debate. Quite simply, productive debate produces something positive, whether agreement or simply mutual understanding. Destructive debate sets out to destroy the character of the fighters. Fighting for ideas and policies can all too easily morph into personal attacks against those who disagree with us.

At the other extreme, we can sometimes be quick to label as mudslinging any effective argument that makes our position look bad, regardless of whether the attack was actually personal. During my campaign, I was very aggressive in talking about my opponents' records, positions and public statements. I believe these things are fair game.

But I did not and will not tolerate the politics of personal destruction from either side. Once you find yourself calling someone a name, questioning their character or insulting their friends and loved ones, you're over the line.

I recently became aware of an offensive video comparing the speaker of the House to a James Bond movie character. If you've read the headlines from Capitol Hill recently, you may already know I responded by criticizing the Republican National Committee video for juxtaposing Nancy Pelosi and the fictional Pussy Galore.

Publicly condemning a video put out by my own party may seem counterproductive. But I firmly believe that the quality of our public policy is directly related to the quality of our public debate. I am not willing to tolerate efforts to degrade that process. The work we do is too important.

I want to win the war of ideas as much as anyone. I truly believe in the principles I promote. No doubt, if I could spend a few hours talking to Nancy Pelosi, she and I would disagree far more than we would agree. But I want to win that war of ideas on the merits of the ideas, not on the basis of personal attacks that harm a person's character or cause pain for their family members.

Healthy debate is the foundation of everything we do. I would hope my legislative record is already beginning to reflect that belief. I was very outspoken about my disappointment with an economic "stimulus" package that received virtually no debate and was not even read or evaluated before we voted on it.

I have refused to ask for earmarks on the basis that they too often circumvent the established committee hearing process and do not get debated. When the Pelosi video was released, I simply could not sit by and watch personal attacks being levied by my own party without speaking out.

My visit to Germany last week produced valuable opportunities to debate public policy with people who were coming from a very different place than I was. As I met with the German chancellor, various ministers, member of the legislative body (the Bundestag) and the German ambassador to the United States, we disagreed on a number of issues.

Most notably, they disagreed with my opposition to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. But we had a productive and civil discourse that helped us better understand one another, even if we didn't ultimately agree.

Looking ahead, I am gearing up for other battles where the stakes are high and the parties are vocal. Same-sex marriage, for example, is a divisive issue in this country. I happen to believe that my position in favor of traditional marriage represents that of the majority of Americans. But that does not mean we shouldn't have this debate.

We should consider the merits of the arguments on both sides. But I look forward to engaging in a debate that is productive rather than destructive on this and many other important issues.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jason Chaffetz.

All About Nancy PelosiU.S. PoliticsRepublican Party

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