Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Strawmen Sure Do Get Around

A few days ago, the AP's Jennifer Loven wrote a strange "news" report on George Bush's supposed predilection for strawmen in his speeches. Loven wrote that the usage of the rhetorical device 'some say' indicates a dishonest approach to argument and debate:

When the president starts a sentence with "some say" or offers up what "some in Washington" believe, as he is doing more often these days, a rhetorical retort almost assuredly follows.

The device usually is code for Democrats or other White House opponents. In describing what they advocate, Bush often omits an important nuance or substitutes an extreme stance that bears little resemblance to their actual position.

He typically then says he "strongly disagrees" — conveniently knocking down a straw man of his own making.

Of course, this argument is ludicrous. Often in debates, politicians do not want to get specific about the origin of an argument -- and in the examples Loven cites, the arguments have been made by so many people that one could take an entire day trying to recount the specific citations.

If these are strawmen, then apparently the practice isn't limited to Bush. A few of Loven's colleagues use them as well, as evident in the President's press conference this morning:

Q Good morning, sir. Mindful of the frustrations that many Americans are expressing to you, do you believe you need to make any adjustments in how you run the White House? Many of your senior staffers have been with you from the beginning. There are some in Washington who say ...

Q Some say they are tired and even tone-deaf, even within your party who say that maybe you need some changes. Would you benefit from any changes to your staff? ...

Q You said you listen to members of Congress, and there have been growing calls from some of those members for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ...

My, those strawmen sure do get around, don't they? Can we look forward to Loven's next exposé to focus on the dishonest rhetoric and demagoguic attitudes of her brethren in the Exempt Media? I would love to read that analysis.

Speaking of the presser, I didn't get much of a chance to listen to it except for a few excerpts. I think Bush did a fine job in a forum he dislikes. He remained firm while sounding (especially on paper) coherent and relaxed with a hostile press, especially the doddering fool, Helen Thomas. I especially liked her allegation that Iraq never did anything to this country, forgetting that Saddam tried to assassinate George H. W. Bush when he visited Kuwait after his presidency, an act that resulted in Bill Clinton ordering a missile assault on Iraqi intelligence assets in Baghdad. Saddam's security forces repeatedly fixed anti-aircraft missiles on our pilots while they enforced and patrolled the no-fly zone, and the first attack on the World Trade Center involved a man who got a Kuwaiti identity during Saddam's occupation of his neighbor.

Bush hit the target when he talked about the difference between a September 10th point of view and a September 12th point of view:

Our foreign policy up to now was to kind of tolerate what appeared to be calm. And underneath the surface was this swelling sense of anxiety and resentment, out of which came this totalitarian movement that is willing to spread its propaganda through death and destruction, to spread its philosophy. Now, some in this country don't -- I can understand -- don't view the enemy that way. I guess they kind of view it as an isolated group of people that occasionally kill. I just don't see it that way. I see them bound by a philosophy with plans and tactics to impose their will on other countries.

The enemy has said that it's just a matter of time before the United States loses its nerve and withdraws from Iraq. That's what they have said. And their objective for driving us out of Iraq is to have a place from which to launch their campaign to overthrow modern governments -- moderate governments -- in the Middle East, as well as to continue attacking places like the United States. Now, maybe some discount those words as kind of meaningless propaganda. I don't, Jim. I take them really seriously. And I think everybody in government should take them seriously and respond accordingly. And so it's -- I've got to continue to speak as clearly as I possibly can about the consequences of success and the consequences of failure, and why I believe we can succeed.

But he made his best point when the issue of the NSA surveillance program arose:

I did notice that nobody from the Democrat Party has actually stood up and called for getting rid of the terrorist surveillance program. You know, if that's what they believe, if people in the party believe that, then they ought to stand up and say it. They ought to stand up and say the tools we're using to protect the American people shouldn't be used. They ought to take their message to the people and say, vote for me, I promise we're not going to have a terrorist surveillance program. That's what they ought to be doing. That's part of what is an open and honest debate.

I did notice that, at one point in time, they didn't think the Patriot Act ought to be reauthorized -- "they" being at least the Minority Leader in the Senate. He openly said, as I understand -- I don't want to misquote him -- something along the lines that, "We killed the Patriot Act." And if that's what the party believes, they ought to go around the country saying we shouldn't give the people on the front line of protecting us the tools necessary to do so.

Many of us have vented our frustration at the lack of direct communication from this White House on the war, the economy, and other issues. This started to change towards the end of last year, but in January the effort seemed to stop. George Bush needs to hold conferences like this more often; he always manages to outperform expectations when he does, and the American people like his direct manner when interacting spontaneously with the press and with audiences for his speeches.

He needs to continue this effort, and not just to make himself more popular. The war effort hangs on his ability to keep the American electorate from panicking and withdrawing their support. Speaking about the issues of the war and his plans for victory is as necessary for that effort as the Humvees he's sending to Iraq for the new Iraqi Army. Without a much more energetic effort of the kind we saw today, Bush will lose this war by default.