William Safire must not have cable TV, internet, or newspaper delivery wherever he is spending is retirement. He writes:
“Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t defend this country,” he cried angrily. “Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t keep us safe.” Who’s telling him that? By escalating criticism, he knocked down a straw man, the oldest speechifying trick in the book. He promised to “restore our moral standing” (shades of Jimmy Carter) “so that America is once more the last, best hope for” (Lincoln wrote of) “all who are called to the cause of freedom” (shades of George W. Bush). But does he apply that idealist “cause of freedom” to the invaded Georgians? He didn’t say.
You have absolutely got to be kidding me. Who is telling him that? That claim–that Democrats won't defend you–has been the cornerstone of the right's argument against the Democrats for seven years–made in various forms by nearly every one of their intellectual and political superstars.
But he's right. It is a straw man.
After eight years of a President who, at the time he was elected, had barely held a full-time job, who not only knew little about anything but didn't care or didn't think his ignorance was a vice, who had not volunteered for anything (not to mention the war he supported), and whose greatest achievement at the time of his election was quitting drinking, Barack Obama, Democratic candidate for President of the United States and a person of myriad and well-documented achievements, cannot with a straight face be called an unknown or mysterious quantity. But alas, Charles Krauthammer will say anything:
The oddity of this convention is that its central figure is the ultimate self-made man, a dazzling mysterious Gatsby. The palpable apprehension is that the anointed is a stranger — a deeply engaging, elegant, brilliant stranger with whom the Democrats had a torrid affair. Having slowly woken up, they see the ring and wonder who exactly they married last night.
A quickie marriage after an 18-month courtship? Not exactly.
Ruth Marcus writes:
It's not just about the narrative.
So get ready for the narrative:
Obama's exotic background — his unique melange of Kenya, Kansas, Hawaii and Harvard — makes the job of presenting his life story particularly important. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell made that point bluntly in an interview with Post reporters and editors Tuesday, comparing Obama to the egghead Adlai Stevenson, who twice failed as the Democrats' nominee.
"With people who have a lot of gifts, it's hard for people to identify with them," Rendell said. "Barack Obama is handsome. He's incredibly bright. He's incredibly well spoken, and he's incredibly successful — not exactly the easiest guy in the world to identify with."
Obama's strategists acknowledge this phenomenon. "Our candidate is outside of the mold," one senior adviser told me. "There are so many things about our candidate that are different that the challenge that we have is to give people a confidence that despite all these things that feel different, 'Okay, I get what he's about personally' . . . that his family is like every other family that your kids go to school with."
This is necessary but not sufficient, as Obama advisers agree. Obama needs to seem more familiar and approachable to voters, yes, but he also needs to convey — to use President Clinton's famous phrasing — that he feels their pain.
So far this argument rests on the authority of the various fairly prominent and representative Democrats she mentions. It might be stronger if she softened her claim a bit to say that it seems to some Democrats that Obama needs to x, y, z. My point is rather another: A more circumspect writer might have noticed the vacuousness of the "regular guy"–you know, the one you think you want to have a beer with, but in reality does not drink beer, or wouldn't ever have a beer with a non-Yalie–persona as a qualification for President. A more circumspect writer would have also wondered whether people actually want that, or whether it is just a kind of storyline–a kind of narrative as it were–she and others have been pushing. Even though some prominent Democrats seem to agree (and indeed, they seem to be the right kinds of people to ask), maybe a more critical mind, or at least a more industrious one, would bother to inquire whether the public gives a rats about who they can have a beer with. But perhaps what I want would fall outside of the narrative of the clairvoyant pundit, who doesn't need to do any research.
It was stuff like this that inspired us to start this blog four years ago. From the All-Around Gold Medalist in Sophistry, George Will:
Barack Obama has made his economic thinking excruciatingly clear, so it also is clear that his running mate should be Rumpelstiltskin. He spun straw into gold, a skill an Obama administration will need to fulfill its fairy-tale promises.
Obama recently said that he would "require that 10 percent of our energy comes from renewable sources by the end of my first term — more than double what we have now." Note the verb "require" and the adjective "renewable."
By 2012 he would "require" the economy's huge energy sector to — here things become comic — supply half as much energy from renewable sources as already is being supplied by just one potentially renewable source. About 20 percent of America's energy comes from nuclear energy produced using fuel rods, which, when spent, can be reprocessed into fresh fuel.
Obama is (this is part of liberalism's catechism) leery of nuclear power. He also says — and might say so even if Nevada were not a swing state — that he distrusts the safety of Nevada's Yucca Mountain for storage of radioactive waste. Evidently he prefers today's situation — nuclear waste stored at 126 inherently insecure above-ground sites in 39 states, within 75 miles of where more than 161 million Americans live.
By any ordinary definition, nuclear power might be an extremely efficient resource, but, as the problem of nuclear waste makes painfully clear, it is not entirely renewable–nor is it without potential environmental cost. To claim otherwise stretches the definition of "renewable."
So much of sophistry, so it seems to me, consists in this kind of overreaching–there's nothing wrong with claiming that Obama's energy project leaves out very efficient, safe and clean energy resources (if that's the case), there's just no need to claim he's somehow involved in a laughable contradiction. Besides, the man who wrote "The Case for Bush" ought to be more circumspect when he says this:
In 1996, Bob Dole, citing the Clinton campaign's scabrous fundraising, exclaimed: "Where's the outrage?" In this year's campaign, soggy with environmental messianism, deranged self-importance and delusional economics, the question is: Where is the derisive laughter?
Oh it's there alright.
This blog–I used to hate calling it that but such is life–is four years old today. The parade of silliness which moved us to create it has, by my reckoning, not diminished.
Sorry McCain fan or fans, it's hard not to make fun of this:
“I define rich in other ways besides income,” he said. “Some people are wealthy and rich in their lives and their children and their ability to educate them. Others are poor if they’re billionaires.”
That may be. When the question is tax policy (as it most certainly was) however, there's only one kind of rich that counts–the kind with 7 or 10 or more houses, and 270,000 a year on household staff expenses.
In the never begun quest to figure out why our children isn't learning, George Will hits upon the answer:
Unfortunately, powerful factions fiercely oppose the flourishing. Among them are education schools with their romantic progressivism — teachers should be mere "enablers" of group learning; self-esteem is a prerequisite for accomplishment, not a consequence thereof. Other opponents are the teachers unions and their handmaiden, the Democratic Party. Today's liberals favor paternalism — you cannot eat trans fats; you must buy health insurance — for everyone except children. Odd.
His argument would be better if he could find some representative liberal making that argument. But alas. Perhaps honesty is just too much to ask.
UPDATE: here's a more enlightening discussion of the same piece.
On the theme of taking pride in being ignorant, here's Michael Gerson on Barack Obama:
What took place instead under Warren's precise and revealing questioning was the most important event so far of the 2008 campaign — a performance every voter should seek out on the Internet and watch.
First, the forum previewed the stylistic battle lines of the contest ahead, and it should give Democrats pause. Obama was fluent, cool and cerebral — the qualities that made Adlai Stevenson interesting but did not make him president. Obama took care to point out that he had once been a professor at the University of Chicago, but that bit of biography was unnecessary. His whole manner smacks of chalkboards and campus ivy. Issues from stem cell research to the nature of evil are weighed, analyzed and explained instead of confronted.
Weighing, analyzing, and explaining them does not entail not confronting these issues. Indeed, I shudder at the confronting that does not follow the weighing, the analyzing and the explaining.
One more thing. Later in the piece, Gerson writes:
Obama's response on abortion — the issue that remains his largest obstacle to evangelical support — bordered on a gaffe. Asked by Warren at what point in its development a baby gains "human rights," Obama said that such determinations were "above my pay grade" — a silly answer to a sophisticated question. If Obama is genuinely unsure about this matter, he (and the law) should err in favor of protecting innocent life. If Obama believes that a baby in the womb lacks human rights, he should say so — pro-choice men and women must affirm (as many sincerely do) that developing life has a lesser status. Here the professor failed the test of logic.
It doesn't follow by a matter of logic alone that "uncertainty" in the matter should tend one way rather than the other. Besides, the mother's autonomy seems more well established than the fetus' personhood, so one could say well established rights should take precedence (in the case of conflict). But Gerson obviously distorted Obama's point. Aside from this, Warren's framing of the question ("gains rights") is devious: human rights are not "gained" and "lost" (except in certain places) as one accumulates chips. You have them or you don't. Suggesting otherwise (in the case of the fetus) seems something of a heap paradox: when is a heap a heap? Two? Three?
There may, of course, be nothing wrong with the "heap" view of rights, Warren (and Gerson) just ought to acknowledge when it has been sneaked into a question to a pro-choice Presidential candidate in front of an admittedly hostile pro-life audience. In light of those facts, Obama's answer–with its weighing, analyzing, and confronting–was right on point.
In response to distortions of story, Obama said it seems like certain people "take pride in being ignorant." Enter Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity:
GINGRICH: Well, I got a very funny e-mail from a retired military officer in Tampa who pointed out that most tire inflation is done at service stations and you pay for it. And it’s actually a higher profit margin than selling gasoline. So Sen. Obama was urging you to go out and enrich Big Oil by inflating your tires instead of buying gas.
Video here. The tire inflation advice was not only a strategy to deprive BIG OIL of vast profits, but one to save you money on gas. So the amount invested on tire pumping (50 cents) will save you much more in fuel efficiency (with all of the accompanying benefits, such as depriving Big Oil of its profits, not filling the atmosphere with that much more carbon, etc.). In case you're keeping score at home, this would amount to, I think, a fairly textbook case of suppressed evidence.
Here's what looks like a causal argument–or a causal inference at least–wrapped up in another causal explanatory inference. The second one is an ad hominem, the first likely a causal fallacy. Robert Kagan, of hawkish foreign policy fame writes.
Judged on its own terms, the war on terror has been by far Bush's greatest success.  No serious observer imagined after September 11 that seven years would go by without a single additional terrorist attack on U.S. soil.  Only naked partisanship and a justifiable fear of tempting fate have prevented the Bush administration from getting or taking credit for what most would have regarded seven years ago as a near miracle. Much of the Bush administration's success, moreover, has been due to extensive international cooperation, especially with the European powers in the areas of intelligence sharing, law enforcement, and homeland security. Whatever else the Bush administration has failed to do, it has not failed to protect Americans from another attack on the homeland. The next administration will be fortunate to be able to say the same — and will be contrasted quite unfavorably with the Bush administration if it cannot."[numbers inserted]
While there thankfully hasn't been another attack (aside from the Anthrax attacks) on U.S. soil, there have been numerous terrorist attacks on U.S. allies (Britain, Spain, Bali, etc.) and U.S. interests (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, and so on). Aside from the unsettling progress in Afghanistan and Iraq, one might suggest (as many terrorism experts have) that no terrorist attack was planned or attempted on U.S.soil. So Kagan might be claiming credit for nothing. In light of such observations, Kagan can hardly claim that "naked partisanship" (and fear of jinxing it) have prevented the Bush administration from taking credit.
So the second claim assumes only the weakest objections to credit-mongering (which, by the way, the Bush administration has not been shy of pointing out), when a person of Kagan's calibre ought to know better. Given the existence of such views, Kagan ought to be far more circumspect when it comes to definitive causal assertions of the sort that the Bush Administration is responsible for stopping or otherwise preventing attacks on US soil–their mere absence is not evidence for its success. Besides, given its unique ability to thwart terrorism here, our Allies might wonder why we can't be more helpful to them in this regard.
In fairness to Kagan, there's much more to the argument than cited here. But then again, a silly argument is a silly argument.