Where exactly are the boundaries in our political discourse today? Given seemingly endless poor examples set by some of our elected officials, it is a question that many Americans are asking.

In this day of social media, 24-hour news networks, and Twitter wars, the more controversial you are, the more likely you are to “trend” and get attention. But is that what we want our elected officials to be working on during their time in office?

Politicians have always been an easy target for people when they are pointing out hypocrisy. They overpromise and underdeliver. Yet, until recent years, our nation’s leaders commanded the respect of the public. That is clearly not the case today, and the actions last week by a freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives has continued our plummet to new lows.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan is only the latest example of the escalation of unacceptable rhetoric. Her vulgar description of the president of the United States went too far. Yet, unfortunately, there has been no public repercussion to the congresswoman’s vile statement. In response to the comments House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “I’m not in the censorship business.” Her lack of addressing this matter with her colleague is unacceptable. To be clear, I am not defending President Trump for the things he has said or typed through his all too active Twitter account. But as the saying goes, two wrongs do not make a right. Speaker Pelosi has failed to lead by example.

A month ago, I concluded my service in the Maine Senate. As my last official act as Senate President, I gave welcoming remarks to the income members of the new legislature. In my remarks, I implored the legislators to work together. Do things in Augusta because it is the right thing to do, not just because you can. But most important, remember that the people of Maine didn’t elect legislators so they could call each other names. Instead, elected officials should attack the issues, not the people with whom they disagree. Sadly, this concept is becoming extinct and is being replaced with a dangerous attitude of “treat others the way they treat you.” This has only ratcheted up of the toxic environment we find in Augusta and Washington.

To begin to set a new tone in our public discourse, we need elected leaders, especially legislative leaders, to stand up and hold their colleagues accountable.

In her role as presiding officer, Nancy Pelosi’s first duty is to be the caretaker of an important public institution that will exist long beyond her service. How presiding officers conduct themselves and the decisions they make have lasting impacts. They set the precedent for future conduct. This is precisely where Speaker Pelosi has failed the Congress she is charged to lead, and in doing so has allowed our political discourse to continue its decline.

Speaking out and taking action, especially when it’s a member of your own party, is difficult; I have been through it. But the damage of doing nothing is unacceptable. As Senate president, I often found myself in the crosshairs of criticism from both sides. But through it all, I tried to remain fair and hold the highest possible standards for the Maine Senate. It was our goal, collectively, to maintain the utmost level of professionalism and decorum in the Senate. By doing so we proved that you can disagree without being disagreeable.

The latest incident in Congress is a sad reminder of how far our elected officials in Washington have sunk. Congress should be the gold standard for legislative democracy. Setting the bar for decorum, expectation of behavior, and yes, even respectful debate. State legislators used to look to Washington to set the example of how to conduct themselves, but not anymore. Speaker Pelosi’s decision to not hold Congresswoman Tlaib accountable only reinforces the current gutter-level decorum that currently exists.

Why is a public apology an unreasonable expectation? Why aren’t all of our elected officials being held to higher standards of conduct? Without boundaries, our democracy will continue to slip towards chaos.

Next week, next month, or next year, something will be said that is even more outrageous than Congresswoman Tlaib’s comments. Maybe then someone will stand up and declare we have gone too far.

If not, when will we finally hit rock bottom?

Mike Thibodeau, a Winterport Republican, served in the Maine House from 2006 to 2010 and in the Maine Senate from 2010 to 2018, the last four years as president.

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