Category Archives: Roger Cohen

Sobriety test

Normally nominally liberal Richard Cohen finds a way to stink up the Post's editorial page.  Today, however, he's discovered an interest in facts and logic–one which, by the way, we wholeheartedly endorse.  He writes:

In her debate against Joe Biden last week, she mischaracterized Barack Obama's tax plan and his offer to meet with foreign adversaries of the United States. She found whole new powers for the vice president by misreading the Constitution, if she ever read it at all. She called one moment for the federal government to virtually disappear and a moment later lamented the lack of its oversight of the financial markets. She asserted that she "may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you [Biden] want to hear" because, apparently, the rules don't apply to her on account of her being a hockey mom. Fer sure.

Not enough? Okay. Palin also said that she "and others in the legislature" had called for the state of Alaska to divest itself of investments in companies that do business with Sudan. But, as the indefatigable truth-hunter at The Post found out, the divestiture effort was not led by Palin. In fact, her administration opposed the initiative, and Palin herself only came around to it after the bill had died.

In spite of it all, much of the media saw a credible performance. I could quote the hosannas of some of my colleagues, but I spare them the infamy that will surely follow them to their graves. (The debate's moderator, Gwen Ifill, used the occasion to catch up on some sleep.) Many of my colleagues judged Palin simply as a performer and inferred that her performance would go over well in homes with aboveground swimming pools.

A perfect example is the Wall Street Journal, whose (conservative) editorial page has been absolutely fixated on a strict (Scalian) reading of the Constitution. Did it wonder what in the world Palin meant by the authority she found in the Constitution to increase the role of "the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate"? What? Oh, never mind. The Journal chivalrously ignored the matter. Palin is excused from knowing the limits of the office she seeks.

In effect, columnists, bloggers, talk-show hosts and digital lamplighters have adopted the ethic of the political consultant: what works, works. It did not matter what Palin said. It only mattered how she said it — all those doggones, references to her working-class status (net worth in excess of $2 million), promiscuous use of the word "maverick," repeated mentions of "greed and corruption on Wall Street" (Who? Be specific. Give examples. Didn't anyone here go to school?) and, of course, that manic good cheer. Palin knows that the standard is not right or wrong, truth or lie, but the graph that ran under both debaters on CNN, measuring approval, disapproval or, maybe, the blood sugar levels of certain people in their focus group. Things have changed. Might used to make right. Now a wink does.

I think we've seen several of these columnists over here–I'm looking at you David Broder–claiming the only thing that mattered, as John Stewart remarked last night on the Daily Show, was that Palin pass a sobriety test.

The tracks of my tears

We don't really do narrative analysis here–not because it's not worthwhile, quite the contrary, we're not equipped (and we're too lazy); for that, please visit the Daily Howler, Glenn Greenwald, and Digby.  I might borrow a few notions from them, however, in order to point out the completely strange way one columnist–Richard Cohen of the Washington Post–analyzes the results of Tuesday's New Hampshire Primary.  For Cohen (and many others, see the above links) the actions of Obama, Edwards, and Clinton can only be explained in a hypersexualized adolescent way:

Rick Lazio must have known what was coming. As Hillary Clinton's Senate opponent in 2000, he alarmingly strode across the stage during a debate and demanded that she sign a pledge to ban the use of soft money in their campaign. With every step, he lost more women's votes.

Now something similar has happened. I am not referring to the most famous cry since Evita's ("Don't Cry for Me, New Hampshire"), but to Barack Obama's patronizing dismissal of Clinton in the final debate of the New Hampshire campaign. After Clinton had good-naturedly responded to a question about what is sometimes called her "personality deficit" — "Well, that hurts my feelings" — she went on to concede that Obama is "very likable." Obama responded with a curt "You're likeable enough, Hillary."

Wince. Slap. A version of "nice personality" — the killer description of a girl from my high school days. It was an ugly moment that showed a side of Obama we had not seen and it might not have been characteristic. But it made for vivid TV, a High-Definition Truth, and probably more than a few women recoiled from it.

Obama could have remedied the situation — Lazio later recovered his standing with suburban women — but the Illinois senator continued to look disdainful on television and seemed to be acting for all the world as if his inauguration was a mere formality.

Was this the moment accounting for the gender gap that put Clinton over the top? Women, 57 percent of the New Hampshire electorate, went for her by 12 points. That was not the case in the Iowa caucuses, where she lost the female vote by five points. Something happened in New Hampshire, something that moved women. Obama would be a fool not to wonder where he had gone wrong.

You get the idea.  Notice that Cohen makes a couple of causal claims: Lazio lost women's votes because he approached Hillary on stage during a debate; Obama lost women's votes because he appeared to call Hillary unattractive.  Cohen, however, doesn't even bother to wonder whether these claims are true: he takes it that a change in the women's vote from one state to another must be accounted for by something that happened in the time between the two events.  That need not be the case at all.  Besides, Cohen hasn't done the minimal work necessary to establish that–nor has he shown or even referenced what might make the Lazio claim true.  More insulting–to all of us–is the idea that voters are motivated by the superficial crap that stirs the loins of pundit types like Cohen (and Chris Matthews, and the rest–again–see the other bloggers).  When I am sealed in the voting cubicle, I'm going to vote for the candidate I think will do the best job.  Until there is specific research showing otherwise, I think my fellow earthlings will be doing the same.


I think newspaper editors across the globe ought to get together and ban the following kind of argument pattern, much as they would any insistence on violating the rules of subject-verb agreement:

>They’re the guys who, in the words of leftist commentator and blogger Matthew Yglesias, “believe that America should coercively dominate the world through military force” and “believe in a dogmatic form of American exceptionalism” and “favor the creation of a U.S.-dominated ‘universal empire.’ ”

>But the term, in these Walt-Mearsheimered days, often denotes more than that. Neocon, for many, has become shorthand for neocon-Zionist conspiracy, whatever that may be, although probably involving some combination of plans to exploit Iraqi oil, bomb Iran and apply U.S. power to Israel’s benefit.

What you have is the basic bait and switch typical of all fallacies of relevance. You start out with a serious issue (the undisputed shortcomings of a certain kind of foreign policy position), then you switch from that argument to the claims of people you imagine on the fringe who say mean things about other people. In the above passage, the first paragraph refers to things neo-cons actually believe. They’re silly enough as it is. Hardly anyone would need to turn them into straw men in order to criticize them.

The second paragraph, however, changes matters somewhat. First, it turns someone’s name into a smear. Walt Mearsheimer is a real person with a real argument. He deserves a little more than sneering dismissal. After this, Cohen mentions that there are critiques of neo-conservatism he finds silly, without, however, actually saying why, other than to imply they’re somehow racist. Nor does he even say who makes them; he relies on the foxly newsy “some say” device.

So here’s the pattern: You set up a straw man in order to make an ad hominem argument. The arguments against neo-cons are often silly chants invented by the socialist club (the straw man). And now the ad hominem: they’re kind of, like, racist, because they sound like Zionist conspiracy type theories.

In addition to the fact that the neocon arguments often appear themselves to be straw men (let’s bomb Iran, hell, it worked in Iraq), Cohen ought to spend his 750 words on something other than picking on straw racists.