I ask myself

When I write–as I did here–that one just doesn't find many "liberals" on op-ed pages who behave as their conservative counterparts do, I was thinking not only of E.J.Dionne, who does basic reporting (polls show. . . ) not arguing (people ought. . . ), I was also thinking of intellectual giants like Richard Cohen.  Last time we saw him, he was grousing about tattoos.  Now he's got a crush on McCain.  He admires that McCain branded maverickness that takes the opposite of everything (mostly).  In yet another example of the premise which begins with a personal anecdote, Cohen writes:

"Just tell me one thing Barack Obama has done that you admire," I asked a prominent Democrat. He paused and then said that he admired Obama's speech to the Democratic convention in 2004. I agreed. It was a hell of a speech, but it was just a speech.

A prominent Democrat ought to be named in the first place, if his or her view is representative. 

On the other hand, I continued, I could cite four or five actions — not speeches — that John McCain has taken that elicit my admiration, even my awe. First, of course, is his decision as a Vietnam prisoner of war to refuse freedom out of concern that he would be exploited for propaganda purposes. To paraphrase what Kipling said about Gunga Din, John McCain is a better man than most.

But I would not stop there. I would include campaign finance reform, which infuriated so many in his own party; opposition to earmarks, which won him no friends; his politically imprudent opposition to the Medicare prescription drug bill (Medicare has about $35 trillion in unfunded obligations); and, last but not least, his very early call for additional troops in Iraq. His was a lonely position — virtually suicidal for an all-but-certain presidential candidate and no help when his campaign nearly expired last summer. In all these cases, McCain stuck to his guns.

So Cohen asks some unnamed person what he or she admires about Obama, then by way of comparison, he asks himself what he admires about McCain.  Why didn't he ask that same Democrat what he admires about McCain?  Or why didn't he ask himself what he admires about Obama–who knows what his response might have been.

18 thoughts on “I ask myself”

  1. If we take it for now that Obama has not made any significant admirable (sigh, FISA) public stands on issues in the course of his political career (and I don’t know enough about Obama’s political career prior to his seemingly yeoman years in the Senate), the comparison seems reasonable.

    McCain has been in the senate for 21 years (well, sounds like this last year he is rarely actually “in” the senate), Obama for 4. But I suppose that doesn’t really matter in this case.

    But more interesting than this is what the notion of “admirable” is doing in this argument. In each case it seems to point not to the achievement but to the character of independence. The fact that he bucked the politically comfortable position in these four cases says something about him, maybe even that he has an independent character and is willing to take risks for what he believes is right (though I’m not sure we should be too quick to infer this).

    But, for each of these things that is putatively admirable, I suspect we can find another that is less admirable (remember the Keating Five?). So how do we score this game?

    I’ll admit I don’t understand “character”–damn you John Doris–or how ethotic arguments work, and, I certainly don’t understand how to assess it in the context of political campaigns. This might be why I’d prefer to assess a candidate based on their stated positions, or even general worldview, rather than on speculation about their character. Though I recognize that unless I assume that a candidate will hold to her or his stated positions, i.e. assume some things about his or her character, I’m in trouble.

  2. Point of order: Kipling actually told Gunga Din that He (Gunga Din) was a better man than Kipling, not than most men. No that I think of it, let’s just read “Gunga Din,” shall we:

    You may talk o’ gin and beer
    When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
    An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
    But when it comes to slaughter
    You will do your work on water,
    An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.
    Now in Injia’s sunny clime,
    Where I used to spend my time
    A-servin’ of ‘Er Majesty the Queen,
    Of all them blackfaced crew
    The finest man I knew
    Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din.
    He was “Din! Din! Din!
    You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!
    Hi! slippery “hitherao”!
    Water, get it! “Panee lao”! [Bring water swiftly.]
    You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.”

    The uniform ‘e wore
    Was nothin’ much before,
    An’ rather less than ‘arf o’ that be’ind,
    For a piece o’ twisty rag
    An’ a goatskin water-bag
    Was all the field-equipment ‘e could find.
    When the sweatin’ troop-train lay
    In a sidin’ through the day,
    Where the ‘eat would make your bloomin’ eyebrows crawl,
    We shouted “Harry By!” [Mr. Atkins’s equivalent for “O brother.”]
    Till our throats were bricky-dry,
    Then we wopped ‘im ’cause ‘e couldn’t serve us all.
    It was “Din! Din! Din!
    You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?
    You put some “juldee” in it [Be quick.]
    Or I’ll “marrow” you this minute [Hit you.]
    If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!”

    ‘E would dot an’ carry one
    Till the longest day was done;
    An’ ‘e didn’t seem to know the use o’ fear.
    If we charged or broke or cut,
    You could bet your bloomin’ nut,
    ‘E’d be waitin’ fifty paces right flank rear.
    With ‘is “mussick” on ‘is back, [Water-skin.]
    ‘E would skip with our attack,
    An’ watch us till the bugles made “Retire”,
    An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide
    ‘E was white, clear white, inside
    When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!
    It was “Din! Din! Din!”
    With the bullets kickin’ dust-spots on the green.
    When the cartridges ran out,
    You could hear the front-files shout,
    “Hi! ammunition-mules an’ Gunga Din!”

    I shan’t forgit the night
    When I dropped be’ind the fight
    With a bullet where my belt-plate should ‘a’ been.
    I was chokin’ mad with thirst,
    An’ the man that spied me first
    Was our good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din.
    ‘E lifted up my ‘ead,
    An’ he plugged me where I bled,
    An’ ‘e guv me ‘arf-a-pint o’ water-green:
    It was crawlin’ and it stunk,
    But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,
    I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.
    It was “Din! Din! Din!
    ‘Ere’s a beggar with a bullet through ‘is spleen;
    ‘E’s chawin’ up the ground,
    An’ ‘e’s kickin’ all around:
    For Gawd’s sake git the water, Gunga Din!”

    ‘E carried me away
    To where a dooli lay,
    An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.
    ‘E put me safe inside,
    An’ just before ‘e died,
    “I ‘ope you liked your drink”, sez Gunga Din.
    So I’ll meet ‘im later on
    At the place where ‘e is gone —
    Where it’s always double drill and no canteen;
    ‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
    Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
    An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
    Yes, Din! Din! Din!
    You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
    Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
    By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
    You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

    I’m thinking that Cohen should probably stay away from Kipling references. Especially in columns exalting the heroic white leader of men over the apparently unspectacular African-American junior senator from Illinois.

  3. How is it that when McCain calls for troops, opposes earmarks & the Medicaid thing, he is “acting” but when Obama calls for an adult conversation about race, opposes going to war in Iraq and opposes restrictions on stemcell research, he isn’t acting? And isn’t giving a speech an action or does Obama work through thought rays? Cohen better put on his tinfoil hat.

  4. I agree Colin that one’s stated views ought to matter as much as “character.”  But you’re right to point out the unclear notion of character at work in Cohen’s argument.  It strikes me as something akin to the notion of maverickness (I think I alluded to that).  To be a maverick, I think, involves a kind of unpredictability–I’d say an almost unprincipled unpredictability–not in the negative sense of unprincipled, just in the sense that no one can discern the principle by which one is “independent.”  Part of the time McCain runs against his party, part of the time he runs with it.  Why?  I don’t know.  He doesn’t seem to have a view.   

    In addition to the stated views of a particular candidate mattering muchly, I’d also add that his (in this case) ability to understand stuff also matters.  Understanding is a kind of character notion–a kind of intellectual arete, wouldn’t you say?

  5. One addendum: I’d take the point about the “unnamed Democratic insider” as perfectly cricket. It is a defeasible premise in the argument. It shifts the burden of argument to the opponent who must identify cases of admirable stands that Obama has taken. Cohen is surely not claiming that the opinion of one unnamed democratic insider is a reason to believe that Obama has never taken an admirable stand on anything. But, I’ll admit I can’t come up with one off the top of my head: Plenty of instances of decent legislative work and the speech against the war was remarkable (though Cohen discounts speeches, something I probably wouldn’t do so easily), and the damn FISA vote cuts the other way.

    The other responses to the argument would be to contest the claim that fa) ollowing his ideology is really a sign of strong character (rather than just having an unpopular ideology), or b) contest the four instances as cases of “maverick-ness,” or c) contest the whole force of these sorts of considerations, or d) contest the narrowness of the evidence for character (“admirable public stands” rather than cases of accepting illegal campaign contributions etc.).

  6. Interesting point Colin–but one ought to keep in mind that the Democrats have only recently emerged from a rather acrimonious primary campaign in which the view Cohen expresses was bandied about by Obama’s opponent.  I suppose Obama’s taking his law degree into public service and community organizing is something you’d hear from an Obama supporter–or at least someone who’s got a crush on Obama.

    But I’d go back to the basic argument set up here.  Cohen picks an unnamed and obviously unprepared Democrat (are all Democrats happy about Obama?  Obviously not), gets no worthy response.  Then he lists the things he admires about McCain.  It would have been more direct had Cohen asked himself what he admires about Obama, then he can say with all honesty, nothing really.

  7. One more thing.  Cohen does take the stronger position that Obama hasn’t done anything but give speeches, without inquiring further than the “unnamed Democrat.”  As you point out Colin, he shouldn’t do this.

  8. Yeah, maybe the best way to boil down Cohen’s argument is just: “McCain should beat Obama if maverickness is the primary quality of a President.”

    It would be like saying “McCain should win if white hair is the primary quality of a President”–except the evidence for McCain’s white-hair-ness is clearer than the evidence of “maverickness.”

    So it seems to be an uninteresting argument rather than a fallacious one.

  9. Cohen has basically been rewriting the same column over and over again over the course of the past two years.  His great admiration for McCain goes back to 1999 at least, as documented by The Daily Howler.  But essentially, Cohen’s only consistency has been his assertion of a social criteria versus one based on logic, policy positions, and so on.  McCain flip-flops, but Cohen knows him, so it’s okay.  Basically, Cohen’s just been saying, I don’t know Obama, I know and like McCain and prefer him – and then Cohen tries to justify that in various ways.  In some cases, he doesn’t even justify as much as he asserts.  For just one example of all this, take what Cohen wrote in January:
    When John McCain sticks to his insistence that the Constitution established the United States as a “Christian nation,” I don’t like it, but I know McCain and I know his character. He has a record in public life going back, essentially, to 1967, when he was shot down over Vietnam and repeatedly tortured by his captors. Back in 2000, I might have gotten a bit “delusional” over him, but I had my reasons.
    I’d prefer it if Cohen just came out and stated his preferences and their reasons more directly, rather than using the unnamed Democrat device, for instance, but the jcasey-Colin interchanges have covered most of that.    

  10. Per Colin’s claim that, “One addendum: I’d take the point about the “unnamed Democratic insider” as perfectly cricket. It is a defeasible premise in the argument. It shifts the burden of argument to the opponent who must identify cases of admirable stands that Obama has taken.”

    I would disagree on the “perfectly cricket” claim, at least until we clarify whether we’re talking about logic or rhetoric. Cohen’s argument is a strawman and an ad vericundiam, and remains such unless and until he can substantiate that his “unnamed Democrat” is actually a person with legitimate authority to speak to Obama’s qualifications.

    I am not such an expert, yet w/o even trying I can come up with the following: Taking a Harvard Law degree to the Southside of Chicago to work on Neighborhood issues. Carrying that work forward into the state legislature. Overcoming deeply entrenched racism to present himself as a viable candidate for POTUS. Rallying in to his inner circle genuine experts on the topics facing this country. Ramping up the snark factor a bit: Earning his elected offices, rather than buying them with his conveniently rich new wife’s inheritances. Understanding not only THAT there is a difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims, but knowing a few of the points of WHAT those differences are. Etc.

    (I would also want to list a variety of issues that I believe Obama is dealing with in a more reality/fact based manner, or all the ways (with the exception of FISA, damnit) that he has not caved in to extremists. But that would be even more arguably partisan of me than the last two.)

    Seriously, what legitimate authority on Obama’s qualifications would start and end with his speeches? If Cohen’s discussion is accurate, then I submit that his “unnamed Democrat” is nothing more than a doe-eyed fan, if even that.

  11. > I’ll admit I don’t understand “character”–damn you John Doris–or how ethotic arguments work, and, I certainly don’t understand how to assess it in the context of political campaigns.

    After listening to various sports reports, a sense of meaning for character appears to be "follow the rules and listen to your coach".

  12. Richard’s love for McCain is no secret. That’s why I think he feels the need to invent this “prominent Democrat” to support his argument.
    That being said, I think the argument can be saved. You can compare the last 4 years of their actions in Senate and draw your own conclusions. Following the Peter principle, I think Obama needs first to prove that he can do the job in Senate before moving on to the next level. Maybe McCain is ready now to meet his level of incompetence 🙂

  13. If we compare first four years in senate, then it’s likely that O. wins handily, assuming that “not being found to be “guilty” of bad judgment by your peers in the senate” is more important than “maverickness.” Somehow an argument that works the other way than Cohen’s–who has behaved more unadmirably?–seems more persuasive. I’m not sure why, however.

    I’ll agree, Gary, that the case can be made better than the U.D.I (unnamed demoncratic insider) does. But, it seems that the problem there is that you understand “admirable” in a different sense than Cohen does who seems to limit its sense, for the sake of his argument, to “maverickness” (bucking the party-line). So again if we restate his argument it seems to be that “McCain has more maverickness than Obama. Maverickness is (the most?) desirable characteristic in a president. Therefore, McCain is a more desirable president.” Or something like that.

    Both the premises are contestable (the second one seems in fact silly). He gives no argument for the second, and the first is based on several instances of McCain maverickness and the inability of someone to identify maverickness on O.’s record.

    I take the latter to be presumptive argument and not a bad induction. And restated explicitly like this the argument seems to be logically O.K. I think every single premise is contestable and the main premises are probably false, but the argument for that allows the comparative claim about maverickness seems O.K. when restated like this.

  14. You said: “If we compare first four years in senate, then it’s likely that O. wins handily”
    I don’t know about that. Just look on what bills each of them worked. Look at their decisions. Take the surge for example …
    Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is this: you don’t start running when you just started walking. An argument can be made that 2 years as a Senator (Jan2005-Feb2007) does not qualify you as a President. I think Cohen could’ve run with this argument. Obama is not proven for such a huge responsability. He hasn’t done enough on the big stage to prove that.

  15. Back to what Cohen actually did say, I think Colin has been too charitable.  Cohen’s unnamed insider is an obviously dirty trick meant to establish the truth of the claim that Obama has done nothing admirable (a fact which he takes for granted at the end of the op-ed), and he obviously does not mean by “admirable” things that reek of maverickness (being a POW wasn’t mavericky–staying when given the opportunity to leave wasn’t mavericky either).  My initial problem with the piece, however, was this–Cohen loves McCain and is not ashamed to say so–so he lists things he, Cohen, admires about McCain.  For proper comparison, why doesn’t he pick someone who loves Obama, and isn’t ashamed to say so, to list the five things he or she admires about Obama.  Then we can have an admiration-off. 

    BN, yes, it is a shame that Cohen didn’t make an entirely different argument.

  16. “My guess is that Obama will make a fool of anyone who issues such a judgment about him. Still, the record now, while tissue thin, is troubling. The next president will have to be something of a political Superman, a man of steel who can tell the American people that they will have to pay more for less — higher taxes, lower benefits of all kinds — and deal in an ugly way when nuclear weapons seize the imagination of madmen.
    The question I posed to that prominent Democrat was just my way of thinking out loud. I know that Barack Obama is a near-perfect political package. I’m still not sure, though, what’s in it.”
    I think that this last paragraph suggests that Cohen is very clear that the premise and its support is “defeasible” and not established by the inability of the one UDI to name something admirable.

  17. I don’t know Colin.  Cohen’s claim, if you look closely, is not really defeasible–he’s open to the possibility of Obama’s doing something in the future which is admirable, but he takes it as sufficiently established  that he hasn’t done anything up till now  (cf. “the record now. . .”).

    But defeasible or not, it’s really irrelevant, I think.  Cohen’s comparison (UDI vs. himself) is silly–it ought to be longtime admirer of Obama vs. Cohen (longtime admirer of McCain).

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