Steve Lonegan, Have You No Decency?

Politicians have learned that the best way to get on TV is to make outrageous comments.

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Moderator Jim Rosenfield, center, introduces U.S. Senate candidates Democrat Cory Booker, left, and Republican Steve Lonegan, right, at the start of their second and final debate of the campaign at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013. This second and final debate of the U.S. Senate campaign is their last chance to sway New Jersey voters one week before the Oct. 16 special election.

New Jersey Democratic Senate candidate Cory Booker, at long last, has uttered the words that should have been spoken years ago by so many elected officials in both major parties.

"Oh, my God. Oh, my God," Booker said during a debate Wednesday night against GOP candidate Steve Lonegan.

It was a human, emotional reaction to a comment Lonegan made that was so tasteless and offensive, there was no point in addressing it seriously. It started with a debate about crime, with Booker, the mayor of Newark, saying that things had improved on that front, and bashing Lonegan for opposing background checks for would-be gun buyers. Then, Booker talked about the importance of having a clean environment, including cleaning up the Passaic River that goes through Booker's city. Lonegan, stunningly, responded:

You may not be able to swim in that river but it's probably, I think, because of all the bodies floating around from shooting victims in your city.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Just when you think we can't get to a new low in political discourse, the bar is dropped. And Lonegan's remarks came after he described Newark, which has a strong African-American population, as a "black hole" for tax dollars from the rest of New Jersey. The characterization was made even less subtle by the fact that Booker, too, is African-American.

But Lonegan is not entirely to blame for his provocative comments. He is the product of a political system that has devolved to the point where people have learned that the best way to get on TV is to make some outrageous comment, so he might have thought his comment was acceptable.

Once we give publicity to someone who accuses the federal government of plotting "death panels" to rid the country of older people and their expensive health care, we open the door to candidates talking about rivers being sullied not by pollution, but floating bodies. Once we print any crazy conspiracy theory someone professes, on the premise that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion no matter how nuts or uninformed it is, we encourage candidates for the U.S. Senate to make outrageous comments.

Long ago, candidates and elected officials should have uttered some version of the "have you no decency, sir?" remark made to Senator Joe McCarthy. But "Oh my God" works just as well.