Damned if you do

In the category of just plain bad arguments, David Brooks, never one to let down the logical analyst, argues that the Kerry campaign has been “incompetent, crude and over-the-top” in this the final phase of the campaign. Brooks offers the following four points as evidence for this claim: Bush will cut social security benefits; Bush will reinstate the draft; The Mary Cheney remark; and finally, Christopher Reeve would have walked again.

It’s not worth it to descend into the fray on the merits of these points. For, first of all, they have been hopelessly deprived of context, and every reader of Brooks knows just how much context Kerry tends to give his points (and how bad that fact usually is). Second, and more importantly, the Bush campaign probably has a better response to them than the ones Brooks provides. In each case, Brooks has Bush simply assert the opposite or claim its ridiculous. Unless the Bush campaign simply asserts its own unique and unverifiable version of reality, they have to have a better response than this. That response, along with Kerry’s real contextualized comments, deserves more fair consideration than Brooks pretends to offer here. Third, Brooks himself says *his* aim is not to discuss the morality of facts and arguments in political campaigns but rather what the incompetence of these charges as *campaigning* says about the *campaigner* and his *campaign*. The problem is not in other words the supposedly baseless and false charges (the truth), it’s the competence of the baseless and false charges (the lie). The problem with Kerry lately then, is that some other baseless and false charges would have been more *effective* as *lies*.

And Brooks does not hesitate to suggest which strategy would be more efficacious:

Bush’s key vulnerability is that people fear he is in over his head. By lashing out wildly, Kerry muddles all that. Instead his blunderbuss approach suggests a candidate devoid of perspective, driven by unattractive and naked ambition.

Aside from telling incompetent falsehoods, Kerry has failed to narrow those same incompetent falsehoods in on a single theme: Bush’s intellectual incompetence. Kerry’s strategy instead reveals him as an incompetent distorter of facts; his “blunderbuss” approach to distortion fails to mask his “unattractive and naked ambition.” Let’s put aside for a moment the morally repugnant claim that Kerry be a better and more effective liar, and focus on the notion that Kerry should hone his message to focus on the single theme of Bush’s intellectual incompetence.

By way of explaining the reasons Kerry has chosen the blunderbuss route, Brooks claims:

Why is he doing this? First, because in the insular Democratic world, George Bush is presumed to be guilty of everything, so the more vicious you can be about him, the better everybody feels.

This is truly mystifying. Brooks has just claimed that “Bush’s key vulnerability is that he is in over his head.” It seems to us that his being “guilty of everything” is a consequence of his being in over his head, and attacking Bush the person for being in over his head is the very advice Brooks has just given. The accusation of being “in over your head,” after all, constitutes a personal attack. So Brooks has argued that the Democrats are incompetent prevaricators, and if they want to win they should attack Bush on a single theme (his incompetence). But attacking Bush for his incompetence (perhaps by giving arguments or distortions to the effect that the consequences of his being in over his head will be a disaster for the solvency of social security, draft age young men and perhaps women, the rights of homosexuals, and finally the progress of scientific research) is vicious.

There is simply no way that Kerry can come out ahead in Brooks’s argument. For if he does not attack Bush for his intellectual failings, he’s incompetent; and if he attack him on these grounds, he’s vicious, and incompetent. So the result of Brooks’s argument is that if Kerry does not want to be incompetent, he must be incompetent. Whatever the virtues or vices of Kerry’s campaign, there is no doubt that this analysis of it is fundamentally contradictory. And anything that is fundamentally contradictory really is incompetent.

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