Monday, September 29, 2008

Rhetoric: Opinion Polls

The use of polls in politics is often a subject of discussion.

People frequently refer to opinion polls in political debate, without giving much care to whether the polls report accurate data. Unless a poll is conducted among a large, representative sample of the group whose views or opinions it is attempting to represent, it risks being inaccurate. The poll's questions must also be crafted carefully, or they will lead respondents to give certain answers.

But apart from issues of accuracy, there are some other ways that polls are misused in political debate.

The "Basing Their Views on Polls" Accusation

Politicians and pundits frequently accuse their opponents of being influenced by polling data. They claim, for instance, that their opponents are using polls to determine their political positions: if a poll says that the voters want X, then their opponent (so the claim goes) decides to support X. Their political views are based on what the polls say voters want.

There are a couple of points on which to challenge this sort of claim.

In the first place, these accusations are seldom backed up with conclusive evidence. How would you prove this sort of claim, after all? You'd need to do more than just show that someone supported X and that a poll showed that voters also supported X. You'd need to show that the former led to the latter. That is, you'd need to show more than just correlation, but causation as well.

In the second place, it's arguable that reflecting the will of the voters is what politicians are supposed to do. As I say, this is arguable. It is often argued that it demonstrates a lack of character for politicians to simply reflect the will of the voters. And others argue that the job of our elected representatives is to exercise their best judgment, even if that judgment is contrary to what the voters think is best.

But this is all debatable. There certainly ought to be some connection between the positions of politicians and will of the voters. And it's not obviously wrong for politicians to be abiding by what they want (though it's not obviously always right, either).

And, even if it were demonstrably true that someone had adopted a political position simply in order to abide by what the voters want, that tells us nothing about whether that position is wrong. It is ad hominem reasoning to argue that a position should be rejected because someone else adopted it on the basis of a poll.

At any rate, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with politicians using polling. In fact, it can be extraordinarily helpful when it comes to knowing where to direct their efforts. Suppose that polling reveals to a politician that voters overwhelmingly agree with his position on abortion, but overwhelmingly disagree with his position on taxes: this information will indicate that his time would be better spent trying to convince people that his views on taxes are correct, rather than his abortion policies, which his constituents already agree with.

Appealing to the Majority

Polls are often used in another way, to try to convince people out of their positions.

For instance, it is often pointed out to a politician that their position on a particular issue runs contrary to what polls say the people want. It usually comes in the form of a statement along the lines of:
"Polls show that a majority of people in the country or in the world oppose you on X, or have a negative opinion of you: how do you respond to this?"
The idea is to put the politician on the spot. How can he oppose the will of the majority?

But the majority isn't always right. Sometimes they are wrong. To argue that "a majority believes X, therefore X is true" is to make a fallacious argument known as argumentum ad populum (or an "appeal to poularity").

So, if someone points out that a poll says that a majority of people hold a particular belief, it is important not to infer -- or to allow anyone to imply -- that that belief is therefore correct.

Polls Seldom Ask About Justification

Related to the "appeal to the majority" matter, it is important to note that polls -- though they often ask people their opinions about what is good and bad, right and wrong, etc. -- they seldom ask voters why they hold those opinions. That is, they seldom ask voters to defend their opinions, or to explain how they justify holding those opinions.

Polls often don't check to see if an opinion is an informed opinion.

As such, merely looking at polling data, you get little or no idea about whether peoples' opinions are based on actual facts or sound reasoning. Often times, if you ask people to defend their opinions, you discover that their opinions are based on false beliefs or flawed reasoning.

As such, we should be unimpressed by reports that "a majority of people believe such-and-such" if we are given no indication that that belief is based on true premises and valid reasoning.


Polls are not necessarily a bad thing. But they don't necessarily carry all the weight that people imagine that they do, either. If someone brings up a poll in a political discussion, be careful about what conclusions are being offered on the basis of the poll.

"According to a June Gallup report, most Republicans (58 percent) believed that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. Most Democrats and independents did not agree. This anti-intellectualism is antediluvian. No wonder a 2009 Pew Research Center report found that only 6 percent of scientists identified as Republican and 9 percent identified as conservative. Furthermore, a 2005 study found that just 11 percent of college professors identified as Republican and 15 percent identified as conservative. Some argue that this simply represents a liberal bias in academia. But just as strong a case could be made that people who absorb facts easily don’t suffer fools gladly."
-- Columnist Charles Blow, December 7, 2012.

Comment: Blow is appealing to polling data to argue that Republicans are "anti-intellectual", which amounts to caricaturing them as "stupid" or perhaps as not caring about facts. Blow also considers a causal connection between political affiliation and scientific occupation, though isn't this a case of false causation?

CARNEY: It's not good government for one party in Congress to refuse to acknowledge what a compromise has to include, a compromised position that is not just the President's position, is not just the Democratic Party's position, but it's the position of the majority of the American people. I mean, I think we've seen data again today that reinforced that fundamental fact. And it's certainly not good government -- the reference you made to our debt ceiling debacle -- to even hint at the possibility of holding the American economy hostage again to the ideological whims of one wing of one party in Congress. That’s unacceptable.

REPORTER [unidentified]: Jay, speaking of the debt ceiling, does an agreement to raise the debt ceiling have to be part of an agreement to avert the fiscal cliff?
CARNEY: We're not going to negotiate over what is a fundamental responsibility of Congress, which is to pay the bills that Congress incurred. It should be part of the deal. It should be done and it should be done without drama. We cannot allow our economy to be held hostage again to the whims of an ideological agenda.
-- White House briefing with Press Secretary Jay Carney, December 4, 2012.

Comment: Carney is making a claim about what Americans want (he seems to cite polling data to back up his assertion). Also, Carney is indulging in "hostage-taking" rhetoric. Related to that, why can't Republicans in Congress bargain in exchange for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling? If they asked for spending reductions in return for raising the debt ceiling, why couldn't that be cast as "comprehensive" legislation? Why must the two be unrelated? Hasn't unrelated legislation been attached to defense spending bills in the past? Was that "hostage-taking"?

"But you know who doesn't want entitlement reform? Voters. Democratic voters, independent voters, and, yes, Republican voters. The Washington Post / ABC News poll asked voters about raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 proposal that has been floated by Republicans in Congress. 67% of people oppose raising the Medicare eligibility age, including 71% of Democrats, 62% of independents, and 68% of Republicans. 68% of Republican voters oppose a Medicare reform proposal being floated by congressional Republicans."
-- TV pundit Lawrence O'Donnell, November 29, 2012.

Comment: First, this is a hasty generalization. Just because a majority of voters oppose raising the age of Medicare eligibility doesn't mean they oppose other Medicare reforms. Second, O'Donnell's use of opinion polls seems to be making an appeal to popularity. Also, by pointing out that Republicans (who O'Donnell frequently opposes), agree with him, O'Donnell seems to be making an "even my opponents agree" argument.

"Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont has spoken on this program about the need to protect programs for the middle class in debt negotiations. Sen. Sanders [I-VT] released this statement to the Ed Show tonight: "What [presidential advisor] David Plouffe has stated deeply concerns me. Despite Mr. Plouffe's assertions, the American people have been clear, both through their votes in the election and in poll after poll after poll. At a time when the middle class is disappearing and the number of people living in poverty is at an all-time high, the American people have demanded that there be no benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and that the wealthiest people and largest corporations in this country, who are doing phenomenally well, must be asked to play a significant role in reducing the deficit." Here, here, Bernie! I'm on board with that! The public agrees with Sen. Sanders, I'm not the only one. In the latest CNN poll, 56% of Americans believe that taxes for the wealthy should be raised to help pay for programs such as Medicare and Medicaid."
-- TV pundit Ed Schultz, November 26, 2012.

Comment: Citing an opinion poll that claims 56% support for a positions indicates a majority, but does it indicate what Americans want as a whole? Plus, is Schultz making an appeal to popularity?

"You see, Mr. President, real leaders don't follow polls; real leaders change polls."
-- Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), August 28, 2012, giving the keynote address at the GOP National Convention.

Comment: This is another derisive caricature, accusing President Barack Obama of simply adopting positions according to polls.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Analysis: September 26th Presidential Debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in Mississippi

Following are excerpts of the presidential debate [CNN Transcript, RCP Transcript, September 26, 2008] between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) at the University of Mississippi, hosted and moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS's NewsHour:

OBAMA: "We also have to recognize that this is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down. It hasn't worked."

Comment: Obama is making the "failed policies" accusation against Bush and McCain (and Republicans more generally), but without going into the detail necessary to substantiate such an accusation. More, his description of his opponents' economic theory is a caricature (in the same way as it is a caricature when people say that the economic theory of Obama and the Democrats is "more regulations, more taxes, bigger government").


OBAMA: "We did not set up a 21st-century regulatory framework to deal with these problems. And that in part has to do with an economic philosophy that says that regulation is always bad."

Comment: Again, Obama is caricaturing his opponents' economic philosophy. Who has said that regulation is ALWAYS bad?


OBAMA: "It's an example of this notion that the market can always solve everything and that the less regulation we have, the better off we're going to be."

Comment: And again, Obama is caricaturing his opponents' economic philosophy. Who has said that less regulation is always better (implying that zero regulation is best of all)?


MCCAIN: "Who's the person who has believed that the best thing for America is -- is to have a tax system that is fundamentally fair?"

Comment: For McCain to imply Obama does NOT want a "fundamentally fair" tax system is a caricature. Granted, McCain and Obama are going to disagree about what amounts to fairness in the tax code, but that shouldn't be distorted into the claim that one of them wants fairness and the other one doesn't.


LEHRER: "What are you going to have to give up, in terms of the priorities that you would bring as president of the United States, as a result of having to pay for the financial rescue plan?"

Comment: Both candidates -- particularly Obama -- were slow to answer this question. Lehrer had to do quite a bit of prodding in order to get them to mention any specific, sizable changes in spending they would make in response to the $700 billion financial bailout that is currently being considered.


MCCAIN: "The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not. The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind. That's the decision of the next president of the United States."

Comment: McCain is correct that the decision to invade Iraq is now in the past, and the next president is not going to be in a position to make it again. But that doesn't mean that this decision isn't an appropriate topic of discussion, as McCain seems to imply. One of the ways we learn about and evaluate a candidate is by looking at the choices they made on issues in the past. The decision on whether or not to invade Iraq may not come up again, but similar ones might. It's fair for us to discuss how McCain and Obama would handle those decisions by looking at their positions on similar ones from the past.


OBAMA: "And, John, I -- you're absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent in what they say. But, you know, coming from you, who, you know, in the past has threatened extinction for North Korea and, you know, sung songs about bombing Iran, I don't know, you know, how credible that is."

Comment: Obama is making an ad hominem appeal to hypocrisy. He is arguing that -- because McCain has not always been prudent about what he says -- McCain's criticism of Obama for not being prudent in what HE says is not credible. It is ad hominem reasoning to argue that -- if someone is hypocritical and doesn't practice what they preach -- then what they preach is false.


OBAMA: "The single thing that has strengthened Iran over the last several years has been the war in Iraq. Iraq was Iran's mortal enemy. That was cleared away. And what we've seen over the last several years is Iran's influence grow. They have funded Hezbollah, they have funded Hamas, they have gone from zero centrifuges to 4,000 centrifuges to develop a nuclear weapon. So obviously, our policy over the last eight years has not worked."

Comment: Obama is making the "failed policies" accusation. For it to be effective, though, he needs to give us reason to believe that there was an alternative that could have succeeded. For instance, what alternative policy would have stopped Iran from installing more centrifuges and developing its nuclear capabilities?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Alcee Hastings Says Palin "Don't Care Too Much about Jews and Blacks"

Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL) on September 24, 2008, made the following statement [ABC News: Florida Congressman: Palin 'Don't Care Too Much What They Do With Jews and Blacks', CNN: Florida congressman points to Palin to rally Jews to Obama, Post Chronicle: Alcee Hastings Attempts To Scare Jews About Palin] about Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), the Republican vice presidential nominee:

"If Sarah Palin isn't enough of a reason for you to get over whatever your problem is with Barack Obama, then you damn well had better pay attention ... Anybody toting guns and stripping moose don't care too much about what they do with Jews and blacks. So, you just think this through."

He also said:

"Just like Jews, blacks care about affordable health care, energy independence, and the separation of church and state ... And just like blacks, Jews care about equal pay for equal work, investment in alternative energy, and a woman's right to choose."

Hastings is accusing Palin -- along with "anybody toting guns and stripping moose" -- of racism and anti-Semitism. He is also implying that -- unlike "Jews and blacks" -- Palin and people like her don't care about "affordable health care, energy independence, and the separation of church and state ... equal pay for equal work, investment in alternative energy, and a woman's right to choose."

Hastings' accusations of racism and anti-Semitism are baseless and demonstrably false. Likewise his claims that Palin and people who carry guns and hunt don't care about affordable health care, alternative energy, etc., as opposed to Jewish people and black people.

There are plenty of gun-owning hunters who aren't racist or anti-Semitic, and who DO care about energy independence and the separation of church and state, etc. Similarly, I'm sure we can find a fair share of Jewish people and black people who DON'T care about these things.

Hastings is advocating stereotypes that are both false and malicious. It is easy to prove that these stereotypes are false -- I'm sure we'll be treated to a slew of examples over the next few days -- and the stereotypes serve to demonize his opponents.

If Hastings wants to stand by these stereotypes, he should be expected to provide evidence backing them up. If he can't -- or won't -- defend these stereotypes, then it's fair to denounce him for making false allegations of racism and anti-Semitism.

That is, he's engaging in malicious, dishonest identity politics (also known as "race-baiting" and "playing the race card").

(Reports indicate that that Hastings' comments were met with laughter and applause. His audience also deserves the be denounced for encouraging Hastings, rather than defying his remarks.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rhetoric: "Setting a Higher Standard"

What are we to make of politicians and pundits who lament the poor state of civil discourse and call for everyone to live up to a higher standard and to engage in civil debate?

While the call to "improve the tone of our political discourse" is, in principle, in line with the mission of The Civil Debate Page, it's too often made in a way that doesn't lead to improved conduct, and instead only creates confusion.

While people often talk about setting a higher standard, improving our civil discourse, and following guidelines of civil debate, they rarely actually live up to their words. To make matters worse, other people then use them as a good example for how to engage in civil debate.

Lack of Clarity on Standards

Part of the problem is that people are unclear what they're talking about when they express the wish for a "higher standard of debate". Higher in what way?

They typically seem to mean that they want a debate that is more respectful, less acrimonious and partisan, that focuses on issues and facts rather than going off onto tangents. While this description is more helpful, it could still do to be spelled out more.

The danger is that -- with an unclear account of what this "higher standard" amounts to -- people will make inaccurate and biased judgments about who is or isn't living up to that standard. Without this clarity we get this result: people routinely insisting that their side is living up to a higher standard than their opponents, even while engaging in all the same misbehavior -- name-calling, ad hominem reasoning, caricature, exaggeration, etc. -- as their opponents.

The call to set a higher standard is sort of the flip side of the accusation of "negative politics". That is, people sometimes dismiss entirely legitimate political and moral debate as "negative politics" because they have an unclear understanding of what good debate is.

In the same way, because people have an unclear understanding of what good debate is, they sometimes venerate illegitimate, uncivil behavior in debate and uphold it as living up to a higher standard. They imagine and say that they're living up to a higher standard of debate when they're actually falling well short of even a minimum standard of civil discourse.

People are, unfortunately, adept at taking a lack of clarity and putting it to self-serving use: witness the abundance of selective outrage in the political arena, as people of all political stripes denounce the bad actions of their opponents while ignoring it when their allies (or even they themselves) engage in the same misbehavior.

What Should We be Doing?

So, what does it mean to really be living up to a higher standard of debate and civil discourse?

One thing it involves is having a clear understanding of what counts as good reasoning. Along these lines, we need to have a good understanding of what sorts of behaviors are a hindrance to productive, civil debate: behaviors such as name-calling, ad hominem reasoning, caricature, exaggeration, etc.

But understanding is not enough. We need to put our understanding into action, and do it in two important ways:
  1. Set a good example in your own conduct, by using good reasoning and not engaging in name-calling, ad hominem reasoning, etc.
  2. Point out and condemn misbehavior when anyone else engages in it, even if -- or especially if -- it comes from one of your own political allies or party members.
It's incredibly important that uncivil debate be criticized wherever it occurs. Otherwise, the call for "setting a higher standard" becomes just another biased, selective tactic used to make yourself look good while making your opponents look bad. This, in fact, is what most politicians and pundits do: they make some statements in the abstract about how important civil discourse is, but then they only ever pick out the failures of their opponents, casting a blind eye to their own misbehavior and the misbehavior of their allies.

In other words, most politicians and pundits only espouse a higher standard and criticize uncivil discourse when it is to their political advantage to do so. Otherwise, they change the subject.

Best Response

How, then, should we respond when someone makes the call for us to set a higher standard in our political and civil discourse?

There are several appropriate responses:

For one, ask them to define the higher standard that they're espousing. Can they clearly define the things that we should be doing -- e.g., good reasoning -- and the things that we shouldn't be doing -- e.g., name-calling and ad hominem reasoning?

Also, ask them if they believe we should be even-handed in applying this higher standard. That is, should it apply equally to them, and not just their opponents?

Perhaps best of all, give them examples of politicians and pundits violating the norms of civil debate -- you'll find plenty on this site -- and see if they'll denounce those violations, even if it's from someone in their own party (or even they themselves).

"That’s the choice you face this November -- between dividing ourselves up, looking for scapegoats, ignoring the evidence -- or realizing that we are all stronger together. If we turn against each other -- whether it's divisions of race or religion -- we're not going to build on the progress we started. If we get cynical and just vote our fears -- or we don’t vote at all -- we won’t build on the progress we’ve started. America has been a story of progress, but has not gone in a straight line. There have been times where we've gone forward, there have been times where we've gone backwards. And what’s made the difference each and every time is citizens voting, and caring, and committing to our better selves. Coming together around our common values, and our faith in hard work and our faith in each other, and the belief in opportunity for everybody, and assuming the best in each other, and not the worst."
-- President Barack Obama, June 25, 2016.

Comment: Obama is calling for setting a higher standard of debate, but at the same time he's demonizing his opponents as not caring about evidence. As a result, his remarks imply that it's mostly his opponents who resort to unfair rhetoric. Also, Obama is using "uniting, not dividing" rhetoric – though, how do you unify with people you accuse of ignoring evidence? – as well as "appealing to fear" rhetoric.

CARSON: It’s something that I strongly advocate: open conversation, civil discussion, as opposed to the way we’ve gotten used to doing things, which is letting other people interpret to us, and then getting in our separate corners and demonizing each other. … Of course we’re all interested in seeing everybody be more civil. Again, I don’t want to make it just about Donald Trump. This is a problem that permeates our entire political system. And we should – and particularly you guys in the media should be encouraging people to be more civil rather than, you know, focusing on the fight and the carnage.

BARNICLE: Dr. Carson, demonization – you spoke about it a couple of times this morning – has been widely, widely consumed in our culture, it’s widely affected our politics, certainly for many, many years. So, unfortunately, today’s conversation and much of what the conversation is about here on a daily basis has to do with Donald Trump. You’ve endorsed him. So we can’t avoid talking about Donald Trump and his campaign, and the issues and the language about his campaign. So my question to you is, demonization – I think we all here at the table agree about the dangers of demonization – but isn’t “Lyin’ Ted”, “Crooked Hillary” – isn’t that a form of demonization, and what do you say to your candidate about the employment of such demonization in the language?

CARSON: Well, I would have to disagree with you that he’s the only one who’s doing it. It’s being done –

BARNICLE: I didn’t say he was the only one. I said he was the one that you endorsed.

CARSON: So, I think what we ought to all be encouraging everybody to do is to talk about the issues. That includes Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, whoever is in the mix, because that is what is going to help us get to the ultimate solution, which is: how do we solve our problems? And we’re trying to make it about personalities. It’s not about personalities. It’s about something so much bigger than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. This is about America. This is about the direction we are taking and what kind of nation are we going to be and what are we going to hand down to our children and our grandchildren.
-- Former Republican presidential contender Ben Carson, June 22, 2016, during interview with Mike Barnicle of MSNBC.

Comment: First, Carson is calling for us to set a higher standard of political debate. Second, however, he is evading the question when it comes to whether or not Trump's rhetoric counts as incivility. Granted, Trump isn't the only one who has resorted to demonizing, but that doesn't mean Carson can't state whether the rhetoric raised by Barnicle also counts as demonizing. Really, how are we supposed to encourage people to good behavior if we don't identify what counts as bad behavior?

"Donald Trump is like the Republican's Frankenstein with orange hair. The Republican Party is reaping what it has sowed. There's all this nostalgia about Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of where three civil rights workers were killed by white supremacists. This is a party which has exploited what Trump is now exploiting. Dog-whistle racism, grievances, resentments. We need an inclusive populism, not the scapegoating populism. To speak to the real anxieties and fears and frustrations, but with hope, not demonization as Donald Trump is doing."
-- Katrina vanden Heuvel, May 8, 2016, referring to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Vanden Heuvel is accusing Trump, Reagan, and much of the Republican party of being bigots who express their position using code words. She is also calling for a higher standard of debate in which we refrain from demonizing others, though isn't it demonizing to say Trump, Reagan, and the rest are racists?

"In my State of the Union address, I remarked that many of you have told me you’d like to see more cooperation and a more elevated debate in Washington, but everyone sometimes feels trapped by their politics. I understand that feeling. I served with many of you in Congress. And so I know that I’m not the only one in this room who may be more than a little dismayed about what’s happening on the campaign trail lately. We have heard vulgar and divisive rhetoric aimed at women and minorities -- at Americans who don’t look like “us,” or pray like “us,” or vote like we do. We’ve seen misguided attempts to shut down that speech, however offensive it may be. We live in a country where free speech is one of the most important rights that we hold. In response to those attempts, we’ve seen actual violence, and we’ve heard silence from too many of our leaders."
-- President Barack Obama, March 15, 2016.

Comment: Obama is calling for a higher standard of debate, and saying that many people have failed to denounce inappropriate rhetoric in politics. He is correct, but he fails to include himself as being one of the people at fault.

"But the truth of the matter is America is pretty darn great right now. … And what the folks who are running for office should be focused on is how we can make it even better. Not insults and schoolyard taunts, and manufacturing facts. Not divisiveness along the lines of race or faith. Certainly not violence against other Americans or excluding them. … And what’s been happening in our politics lately is not an accident. For years, we’ve been told we should be angry about America, and that the economy is a disaster, and that we’re weak and that compromise is weakness, and that you can ignore science and you can ignore facts, and say whatever you want about the President, and feed suspicion about immigrants and Muslims and poor people, and people who aren’t like “us,” and say that the reason that America is in decline is because of “those” people. That didn’t just happen last week. That narrative has been promoted now for years. It didn’t just spring out of nowhere. And of course, none of it has been true. It just ignores reality -- the reality that America is the most powerful nation on Earth. The reality that our economy is not only stronger than it was eight years ago, that it’s, right now, the bright spot in the world. … We can have political debates without turning on one another. We can have political debates without thinking that the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. We can support candidates without treating their opponents as unpatriotic, or treasonous, or somehow deliberately trying to weaken America. That's not just one candidate who’s been saying that; some of the so-called more responsible candidates, including a gentleman from this state -- no, no, you read what he says, it's not -- it's no more rooted in reality than some of these other statements. We can point out bad policies without describing them as a “government takeover” or “an assault on freedom.” And by the way, when I say this, this is not about “political correctness.” It’s about not having to explain to our kids why our politics sounds like a schoolyard fight. We shouldn’t be afraid to take them to rallies, or let them watch debates. They watch the way we conduct ourselves. They learn from us. And we should be teaching them something about this democracy is a vibrant and precious thing. It's going to be theirs someday, and we should be teaching them how to disagree without being disagreeable, and how to engage, and how to analyze facts, and how to be honest and truthful, and admit if you make a mistake, and teach them that politics at its best is about a battle of ideas, and resolving our differences without encouraging or resorting to violence. … As Democrats, we believe in things like science. It has resulted in great improvements in our lives. Science -- that's why we have things like penicillin and airplanes."
-- President Barack Obama, March 12, 2016, commenting on the Republican presidential nomination contest.

Comment: First, Obama is calling for setting a higher standard of debate, and accusing Republicans of being "divisive". Second, Obama is accusing Republicans of being bigots who ignore facts, science, and reality. Third, he is saying that Republicans – but not Democrats? – are guilty of questioning the patriotism of their opponents.

Sen. Marco Rubio on Sunday blamed Donald Trump for turning “the most important election in a generation into a circus, a complete fiasco” and said increasingly intense political disputes threatened American democracy.

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” the Florida Republican bemoaned Trump’s rhetoric but also insisted that both the left and the right were to blame for scenes of chaos and violence at Trump’s rallies, saying the “gates of civility have been blown apart.”

“This country deserves better, and people have to wake up here,” he said. “At some point, this is really going to do damage to America.”

Rubio also said he believed increasing polarization threatens to ruin American political discourse.

“If we reach a point in this country where we can’t have a debate about politics without it getting to levels of violence or anger, where people think just because you’re angry you can say and do almost anything you want, we’re going to lose our republic,” he said. “We’re going to have a big problem. Those images from Chicago the other night, it looks like something out of the Third World.”

Rubio also worried a Trump event could turn deadly.

"I'm very concerned," he said when asked by host Jake Tapper. "We don't know what's going to happen next here. I know that we have reached the point now where people in American politics have decided that if they don't agree with you, that they can get angry at you, that you're a bad and evil person."
-- Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), as related in a March 13, 2016, story by Kevin Robillard of Politico.

Comment: Rubio is calling for a higher standard of debate.

"America’s workforce is growing at the fastest pace since the year 2000. It is showing the kind of strength and durability that makes America’s economy right now the envy of the world despite the enormous headwinds that it’s receiving because of weaknesses in other parts of the world. In other words, the numbers, the facts don’t lie. And I think it’s useful, given that there seems to be an alternative reality out there from some of the political folks that America is down in the dumps. It’s not. America is pretty darn great right now, and making strides right now. … And I don’t expect that these facts and this evidence will convince some of the politicians out there to change their doomsday rhetoric, talking about how terrible America is. … The fact of the matter is, is that the plans that we have put in place to grow the economy have worked. They would work even faster if we did not have the kind of obstruction that we’ve seen in this town to prevent additional policies that would make a difference. … That’s what we should be debating. That’s the debate that is worthy of the American people. Not fantasy. Not name-calling. Not trying to talk down the American economy, but looking at the facts, understanding that we’ve made extraordinary progress in job growth; how can we continue to advance that, how can we make sure that people are successful in climbing the ladder of wage and income growth over the coming years; how do we make sure that we make this economy grow even faster. … The notion that we would reverse the very policies that helped dig us out of a recession, reinstitute those that got us into a hole -- plans that are being currently proposed by Republicans in Congress and by some of the candidates for President -- that’s not the conversation we should be having."
-- President Barack Obama, March 4, 2016.

Comment: There are several things going on here. First, Obama is accusing opponents (in particular, Republicans) of being "out of touch with reality", or perhaps of not caring about facts. Second, it sounds like he's also accusing Republicans of rooting for failure on the economy. Third, he is accusing them of obstruction. Fourth, he is calling for a higher standard of debate. Finally, he is making claims about what caused the Financial Crisis – he says it was Republican policies – and the reversal of that crisis – he says it was his own economic policies. But his support for these claims seems to be flimsy post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.

"[Former Gov. Deval Patrick (D-Mass.)] said, ‘Insist from us and from each other a modicum of civility as the condition for serving you.’ … Our children are watching what we do. … If we lie about each other, they learn it’s okay to lie. … If they see us insulting each other like school kids, then they think, well, I guess that’s how people are supposed to behave. … We should insist on a higher form of discourse in our common life, one based on empathy and respect … We have to stand up and insist, no, reason matters, facts matter … When folks just make stuff up, they can’t go unchallenged. And that’s true for Democrats if you hear a Democratic make something up, and that’s true for a Republican if you see a Republican cross that line."
-- President Barack Obama, February 10, 2016.

Comment: Obama is calling for us to set a higher standard of debate. He is also claiming that someone – he does not say who – is acting as if facts don't matter. He is also failing to point out the various ways that he himself has failed to support civil discourse, which amounts to the "only my opponent" caricature.

"The future we want -- all of us want -- opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids -- all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics. A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country -- different regions, different attitudes, different interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, fiercely, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security. But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn’t work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America."
-- President Barack Obama, January 12, 2016, during the State of the Union address.

Comment: Obama is calling for a higher standard of debate, and to not demonize political opponents as unpatriotic.

We’d be a stronger country, and better people, if we could agree to disagree on the important issues without always challenging one another’s motives or character before retreating to our individual silos with the likeminded.
-- Pundit Ruben Navarrette, December 26, 2015.

Comment: Navarrette is calling for us to set a higher standard of debate.

"Yes, there have been times where you start seeing on college campuses students protesting somebody like the director of the IMF or Condi Rice speaking on a campus because they don't like what they stand for. Well, feel free to disagree with somebody, but don't try to just shut them up. If somebody doesn't believe in affirmative action, they may disagree — you may disagree with them. I disagree with them, but have an argument with them. It is possible for somebody not to be racist and want a just society but believe that that is something that is inconsistent with the Constitution."
-- President Barack Obama, from an interview released December 21, 2015.

Comment: Obama is calling for setting a higher standard of debate (in particular, not shouting people down or falsely accusing them of bigotry).

"Politics in the United States increasingly is defined by personal attacks and saying very sensational things in the media. Now, that's true for politics everywhere to some degree. But I think that for young leaders like you, as you get into politics, trying to focus on issues, and trying to debate people you disagree with without saying that they're a terrible person -- I think that's something that you always have to watch out for."
-- President Barack Obama, November 20, 2015.

Comment: Obama is calling for us to set a higher standard of political debate, though as usual, he doesn't mention how he has often described his opponents as being terrible people.

"Democrats, we are at our best, and America is at its best when we assume the best in others instead of the bad."
-- President Barack Obama, October 23, 2015.

Comment: Obama is calling for us to set a higher standard of debate, however – as seen in this very speech – Obama often assumes the worst about Republicans and conservatives.

"A lot of times it seems like our politics don’t reflect the common sense and decency that we see in our neighbors and our communities and our friends, and it gets frustrating. We’ve got a system that too often rewards division and polarization and short-term thinking, and rewards people for saying the most outrageous things, even though everybody knows they’re not true, but we think of it as entertainment somehow. And so attention-grabbing and controversy is rewarded rather than folks who are rolling up their sleeves and dealing with sometimes really complicated issues that don’t lend themselves to a sound bite. And so people get cynical. And sometimes people just throw up their hands and say “Washington doesn’t work, a plague on both your houses, everybody’s dysfunctional.” Your job is to not succumb to that."
-- President Barack Obama, October 23, 2015.

Comment: Obama is calling for us to set a higher standard of debate. He is lamenting divisive rhetoric that is not factual and how it yields cynicism. However, he doesn't acknowledge how he and his party have contributed to these problems.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush reacted Friday to the latest controversy roiling the GOP race by identifying President Barack Obama as "an American" and "Christian," and calling for a return to civility in national politics.

Bush was alluding to an episode Thursday in which rival Donald Trump declined to correct a questioner who called Obama "Muslim" and "not even an American."

Bush told roughly 2,000 Michigan Republican activists, "I will commit to you that I will never violate my conservative principles. But I will assume that someone that doesn't agree with me isn't a bad person.

"We need to begin to get back to that degree of civility before it's too late in this country," Bush said.
-- Republican presidential candidate former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), September 18, 2015, as related in an Associated Press story by Thomas Beaumont. Bush was referring to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who the day before had not corrected a town hall questioner who claimed that President Barack Obama was not American and was Muslim rather than Christian.

Comment: Bush is calling for civil debate, and using "hate the policies, not the person" rhetoric.

COLBERT: Do you think that you could bring people together? Because everybody says –

BUSH: Yeah.

COLBERT: – they want to bring people together. But when you get down to the campaigning, or get down to what passes for governing now, it often ends up being a – just a game of blood sport.

BUSH: It is.

COLBERT: Where you attack the other person, and the other side can’t possibly do, say, or have planned for anything good.

BUSH: So, I’m going to say something that’s heretic, I guess. I don’t think Barack Obama has bad motives. I just think he’s wrong on a lot of issues. … If you start with the premise that people have good motives, you can find common ground. … You can be friends with people that you don’t agree with on everything. I mean, we have to restore a degree of civility.
-- Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, September 8, 2015, during a debate with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show.

Comment: Colbert is asking whether Bush (or anyone else) can “unify the country.” Bush is using “hate the policies, not the person” rhetoric, and calling for setting a higher standard of debate.

OBAMA: There are legitimate questions and concerns that have been raised by critics of the deal. I have gone out of my way to say that I am prepared to stand there and answer every single one of them as long as it takes. We have thought this through carefully. But I think all of us have to steer away from incendiary language that suggests that either those who are in favor of the deal are appeasing Iran, or, conversely, that those who are opposed to the deal are not thinking about America’s interest. That kind of language we do have to shy away from.

EISNER: There are people, even some of your supporters, who feel that you have contributed to some of that incendiary language. Do you feel that?

OBAMA: Not at all. And I’d be interested in an example of that. … These are hard issues, and worthy of serious debate. But you don’t win the debate by suggesting that the other person has bad motives. That’s I think not just consistent with fair play; I think it’s consistent with the best of the Jewish tradition.
-- President Barack Obama during interview with Jane Eisner of Forward, conducted August 28, 2015 and released August 31, 2015. Their remarks concerned the Iran nuclear deal.

Comment: First, Obama is calling for setting a higher standard of debate. Second, he is saying that others, not he himself, are failing to live up to that standard when it comes to the debate on Iran's nuclear program. Obama has certainly failed to set a higher standard on other political topics, and his accusation that opponents of the Iran deal are making "common cause" with Iranian hardliners is a good candidate for unfair rhetoric on this topic.

WALLACE: Question: Barack Obama, “anti-Semitic”?

CARSON: Well, all you have to do, Chris, is – like I have – go to Israel, and talk to average people, you know, on all ends of that spectrum. And I couldn’t find a single person there who didn’t feel that this administration had turned their back on Israel. And I think, you know, the position of President of the United States should be one where you begin to draw people together behind a vision, not one where you castigate those who believe differently from you. I think it’s a possibility for great healing, if it used in a correct way.

WALLACE: But, you know, it’s one thing, one could argue, your policy difference from Israel, but you say in your article – and you’re talking about his domestic critics here in this country – that there is anti-Semitic themes there. What, specifically anti-Semitic in what the President is saying?

CARSON: I think anything is anti-Semitic that is against the survival of a state that is surrounded by enemies and by people who want to destroy them. And to sort of ignore that, and to act like, you know, everything is normal there, and that these people are paranoid, I think that’s anti-Semitic.
-- Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, August 16, 2015, during an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace. Carson questioned about his August 13, 2015, accusation that President Barack Obama had issued a “diatribe … replete with coded innuendos employing standard anti-Semitic themes.”

Comment: First, Carson evades Wallace’s question about Carson’s accusation that Obama engaged in bigoted behavior. When Carson does answer, he makes it sound as if Obama is unconcerned with the survival of Israel, rather than having a legitimate disagreement about what steps (for instance, the nuclear deal with Iran) are best for securing Israel’s security. Second, where has Obama said that everything is normal in the Middle East or Israel, and that Israeli opponents of the Iran deal are needlessly paranoid? It seems like Carson is knocking over a straw man. Third, Carson accuses Obama of “dividing” the nation. Finally, Carson calls for us to set a higher standard of debate and not to castigate those with different beliefs, but it seems he is doing precisely that: he is demonizing Obama as being anti-Semitic on the basis of having a different view about the merits of the Iran nuclear deal.

"Now, if you're asking me about the politics of Washington and the rhetoric that takes place there, that doesn’t always go great. The particular comments of Mr. Huckabee are, I think, part of just a general pattern that we've seen that is -- would be considered ridiculous if it weren’t so sad. We've had a sitting senator call John Kerry Pontius Pilate. We've had a sitting senator who also happens to be running for President suggest that I'm the leading state sponsor of terrorism. These are leaders in the Republican Party. And part of what historically has made America great is, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, there’s been a recognition that these issues are too serious, that issues of war and peace are of such grave concern and consequence that we don't play fast and loose that way. We have robust debates, we look at the facts, there are going to be disagreements. But we just don't fling out ad hominem attacks like that, because it doesn’t help inform the American people. I mean, this is a deal that has been endorsed by people like Brent Scowcroft and Sam Nunn -- right? -- historic Democratic and Republican leaders on arms control and on keeping America safe. And so when you get rhetoric like this, maybe it gets attention and maybe this is just an effort to push Mr. Trump out of the headlines, but it's not the kind of leadership that is needed for America right now. And I don't think that's what anybody -- Democratic, Republican, or independent -- is looking for out of their political leaders. In fact, it's been interesting when you look at what’s happened with Mr. Trump, when he’s made some of the remarks that, for example, challenged the heroism of Mr. McCain, somebody who endured torture and conducted himself with exemplary patriotism, the Republican Party is shocked. And yet, that arises out of a culture where those kinds of outrageous attacks have become far too commonplace and get circulated nonstop through the Internet and talk radio and news outlets. And I recognize when outrageous statements like that are made about me, that a lot of the same people who were outraged when they were made about Mr. McCain were pretty quiet. The point is we're creating a culture that is not conducive to good policy or good politics. The American people deserve better. Certainly, presidential debates deserve better. In 18 months, I'm turning over the keys -- I want to make sure I'm turning over the keys to somebody who is serious about the serious problems the country faces and the world faces. And that requires on both sides, Democrat and Republican, a sense of seriousness and decorum and honesty. And I think that's what the voters expect, as well."
-- President Barack Obama, July 27, 2015. Obama was referring to remarks made about the Iranian nuclear deal by Republican presidential candidate and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR), Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). They described it respectively, as marching Israelis "to the door of the oven", a "jihadist stimulus bill", and as negotiated by someone who "acted like Pontius Pilate" (referring to Secretary of State John Kerry).

Comment: In the face of remarks that are exaggerations and/or demonizing, Obama is calling for setting a higher standard of political debate. However, by failing to note how he and fellow Democrats contribute to name-calling and incivility, Obama is engaging in the "only my opponent" caricature. Obama also conflates ad hominem reasoning and name-calling. Plus, aren't domestic issues too important to play "fast and loose" with rhetoric?

MARCO RUBIO: I think it's important for the president of the United States to be someone that can conduct, and be engaged in a public debate on an issue without demonizing their opponents, that can hold a speech where you don't invite Paul Ryan, sit him in the front row of the speech and lambast him and attack him in front of everybody, knowing he can't respond. It's important for the office the presidency to be be someone that is capable of doing those things. I have said repeatedly, Barack Obama is a great husband and great father. But I do believe the way he has conducted his presidency has been divisive. I think he unnecessarily demonizes his opponents on policy issues, not just disagreement on policies. He wants to convince people that you are a bad person, that you don't care about the disabled or children or women, or someone who is being hurt. I think that's bad for the country. I truly believe that sort of activity, and is he not alone in it, but I do believe that sort of activity is not what we need from a president.

BRET BAIER: So you stand by that statement that the president has no class?

MARCO RUBIO: I think, on the major issues of our time, he has not conducted himself of the dignity of worthy of that was office. Demonization of political opponents and divisions in America which have made it harder for us to solve our problems, and have poisoned the political environment as a result.
-- Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), July 23, 2015, being interviewed by Bret Baier of Fox News. The discussion concerned Rubio's July 22, 2015, remarks stating that President Barack Obama had "no class".

Comment: There are many things going on here. Rubio is calling for civility in political debate, and is accusing Obama of resorting to demonizing. Rubio is also using "hate the policies, not the person" rhetoric. It's not clear whether Rubio answers the question of whether Obama "has no class" or if he evades it. It's certainly true that Obama has resorted to demonization, but, first, is that appropriately summed up by saying Obama has "no class" whatsoever (or is that itself an act of demonizing)? Second, many Republicans have resorted to demonizing, too: will Rubio describe all of them the same way, or is he resorting to the "only my opponent" caricature?

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday stressed the importance of tone when Republicans talk about issues like abortion and gay marriage, saying that folks in his state know where his “heart is” as a pro-life governor in a blue state.

“I think it’s how you present yourself — I feel very strongly about the things I feel strongly about, but I don’t have to denigrate somebody else in the process,” Mr. Christie, known for his straight-talking demeanor, said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “And I think part of our problem has been tone over time. And I think if the Republican candidate for president’s tone is better and more inclusive, then you can get to a lot of the other issues that the media doesn’t want you to get to.”

Mr. Christie, who is laying the groundwork for a potential 2016 White House run, said tone matters on divisive issues like gay marriage and abortion.

“If you talk about these issues in a way that you are absolutely critical of a person who has a different view than you and dismissive of them, well then they’re going to be dismissive of you as a candidate,” he said. “If you are talking to a person who’s pro-choice on abortion and you’re pro-life, and you say to them, Listen, I’m pro-life and that means I’m going to heaven and you’re pro-choice and you’re going to hell,’ well, you know, if that’s you’re tone, they don’t care what you have to say about pro-growth policies.”

“They don’t care what you have to say about any of that stuff — they care that you seem intolerant to them,” he added. “That’s tone — that’s not position. I’m-pro life, and I’ve had that position as a two-term governor of New Jersey — the first person who’s ever been elected as a pro-life person to a statewide office in New Jersey. My state is a predominantly pro-choice state, but the folks in my state know that I believe it’s a difficult issue and they know where my heart is. But they don’t think that I dismiss them — that’s the difference.”
-- Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), from an article in The Washington Times, May 21, 2015, by David Sherfinski.

Comment: Christie is calling for setting a higher standard of political debate.

"After only four months in the United States Senate, as a 30-year-old kid, I was walking through the Senate floor to go to a meeting with Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. And I witnessed another newly elected senator, the extremely conservative Jesse Helms, excoriating Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole for promoting the precursor of the Americans with Disabilities Act. … When I walked into Mansfield’s office, I must have looked as angry as I was. … And he looked at me, he said, what’s bothering you, Joe? I said, that guy, Helms, he has no social redeeming value. He doesn't care … He doesn't care about people in need. He has a disregard for the disabled. Majority Leader Mansfield then proceeded to tell me that three years earlier, Jesse and Dot Helms, sitting in their living room in early December before Christmas, reading an ad in the Raleigh Observer, the picture of a young man, 14-years-old with braces on his legs up to both hips, saying, all I want is someone to love me and adopt me. He looked at me and he said, and they adopted him, Joe. I felt like a fool. He then went on to say, Joe, it’s always appropriate to question another man’s judgment, but never appropriate to question his motives because you simply don't know his motives. … From that moment on, I tried to look past the caricatures of my colleagues and try to see the whole person. Never once have I questioned another man’s or woman’s motive. And something started to change. If you notice, every time there’s a crisis in the Congress the last eight years, I get sent to the Hill to deal with it. It’s because every one of those men and women up there -- whether they like me or not -- know that I don't judge them for what I think they're thinking. Because when you question a man’s motive, when you say they're acting out of greed, they're in the pocket of an interest group, et cetera, it’s awful hard to reach consensus. It’s awful hard having to reach across the table and shake hands. No matter how bitterly you disagree, though, it is always possible if you question judgment and not motive. … So one piece of advice is try to look beyond the caricature of the person with whom you have to work. Resist the temptation to ascribe motive, because you really don’t know -— and it gets in the way of being able to reach a consensus on things that matter to you and to many other people."
-- Vice President Joe Biden, May 17, 2015.

Comment: This is calling for a higher standard and "don't hate the person" rhetoric. Biden is also indulging in the "only my opponent" caricature, and forgetting the times he has demonized Republicans.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has found herself on the defensive during her first presidential campaign visit to New Hampshire this year, pushing back against swirling questions about her family foundation.

Clinton is taking part in a discussion of jobs creation Tuesday with students and teachers at New Hampshire Technical Institute, a community college.

But she spent much of Monday dismissing accusations that foreign governments that made donations to the Clinton Foundation received preferential treatment from the State Department while she served in the Obama administration.

“We will be subjected to all kinds of distractions and attacks,” she told reporters during a stop in the liberal bastion of Keene. “I’m ready for that. I know that that comes, unfortunately, with the territory.”

In her early campaign stops, Clinton has cast herself as above the political back-and-forth, vowing to change the harsh partisan tone in Washington. “I am tired of the mean-spiritedness in politics,” she told voters who gathered in a supporter’s living room in Claremont. “Enough with the attacks and the anger, let’s find answers together and figure out what we’re going to do.”
-- Associated Press story, April 21, 2015 – titled "Clinton: ‘I Am Tired Of The Mean-Spiritedness In Politics’" – concerning remarks made by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on April 20, 2015.

Comment: This is "distractions" rhetoric. Also, Clinton is calling for a higher standard of political debate, but without admitting to any of her own acts of incivility, leaving the impression that it's others who are mostly responsible for uncivil discourse.

WALLACE: You have taken some heat recently, I do have to tell you, for refusing to say whether or not President Obama loves this country and whether or not he's a Christian. And the conventional wisdom is either you're pandering to the Obama haters or you're not ready for prime time. Which is it?

WALKER: The answer is neither. I am not going to take a manufactured media crisis and take and follow that path instead of going to the path that I think Americans want, which is leaders who will stand up and tell them where they stand on the issues that matter to them and talk about how you're going to ensure that that family that's been out of work for the last six months can find a way to be a part of this recovery, talk about how we're going to take the power out of Washington and put it in the hands of the hardworking taxpayers. Those are the things people care about. And as I, after last week's visits to Wisconsin and to Michigan, when I heard from people talk about what happened in Washington, they said you need to push back and say that's what the American people want to talk about, not this nonsense.

WALLACE: I agree with you, the question about whether or not Obama is a Christian was nonsense, was stupid. On the other hand, the question about whether or not he loves the country, Rudy Giuliani said that at a dinner for you. It seems to me, it's fair game to say to you after the dinner, what do you think of it? Marco Rubio, one of your potential contenders, said I don't think there's any doubt he loves the country. I just think his policies are wrong. Isn't that a better, smarter way to handle that?

WALKER: Yes. But let's be clear on the point with the mayor. The mayor wasn't speaking on my behalf. He happened to show up half-way through an event that we had that night and he can speak on his own. That's what I've said repeatedly since that time, as the president can. I don't question that. I think any person who's going to put their name on the ballot has to have a love for their country and their state and their jurisdiction no matter where they were. So, I -- I don't contest that against anyone who's running for office out there. My point wasn't to get in the middle of that, but rather to say I want to lift the debate up, to talk about issues that people really care about. I'm not going down that path. I'm not making those arguments. I'm going to talk about the things that matter to everyday Americans.

WALLACE: Just to be clear, because you seem to -- to indicate you think the president, President Obama, loves this country?

WALKER: I think, in the end, he and anybody else who is willing to put their name on the ballot certainly has to have the love for country to do that.
-- Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI), March 1, 2015, during an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday. The conversation concerned remarks made by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) on February 18, 2015, at an event Walker also spoke at.

Comment: First, Walker is using "Americans want" rhetoric. More, Walker is saying he doesn't have an obligation to police Giuliani's remarks disparaging President Barack Obama. Is that true? By comparison, did Obama have an obligation to police the remarks Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa made disparaging the Tea Party at an event they both spoke at on September 5, 2011? Given that Walker is insisting we should talk about substantive issues and "lift up the debate", isn't it fair to ask him if he will denounce Giuliani's remarks, remarks which don't seem to live up to the standard of debate that Walker is advocating?

"This is exactly what we have to get away from in our politics. We have to find a way to disagree without disqualifying each other as Americans."
-- David Axelrod, a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, February 23, 2015.

Comment: Axelrod is calling for a higher standard of debate, but he apparently didn't spell out any specifics of what that means in practice, nor did he apologize or take responsibility for any acts of uncivil debate on his part or the part of the Obama administration.

"So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes. I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. … Imagine if we did something different. Understand, a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives. … If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country."
-- President Barack Obama, January 20, 2015, during the 2015 State of the Union address.

Comment: Again, this is another call to set a higher standard of political discussion, and to uphold civility and civil debate. But such a call is a platitude unless you give specifics about how it is we're supposed to be civil to one another. What concrete examples of demonizing does Obama think should be stopped? Will Obama admit to any instances of demonizing his opponents? Or does he think that it's only his opponents who resort to demonizing?

"You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America or a conservative America; a black America or a white America -- but a United States of America. I said this because I had seen it in my own life, in a nation that gave someone like me a chance; because I grew up in Hawaii, a melting pot of races and customs; because I made Illinois my home -- a state of small towns, rich farmland, one of the world’s great cities; a microcosm of the country where Democrats and Republicans and Independents, good people of every ethnicity and every faith, share certain bedrock values. Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws -- of which there are many -- but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, na├»ve, that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it. I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong. I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long."
-- President Barack Obama, January 20, 2015, during the 2015 State of the Union address.

Comment: Obama is accusing his critics of being cynical, and indulging in "unify the country" rhetoric. He is also calling for a higher standard of debate. But, as is typical with such calls, he isn't admitting to any specific mistakes he has made, any particular acts of incivility. An important part of teaching people how to engage in civil debate is to point out failures in civil debate so people know to avoid them. But Obama is leaving listeners with the impression that he hasn't made any mistakes, or, at least, he isn't detailing any of his mistakes as a way of teaching others how to do a better job at civility and civil debate.


Examples from 2012.


Examples from 2011.


Examples from 2008.

"What's stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What's stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics -- the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems."
-- Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), Announcement for President, February 10, 2007.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)rodham asd

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Rhetoric: "Failed Policies"

Politicians frequently claim that their opponents support "failed policies". But the arguments they make to support that claim are often pretty lousy, and the "failed policies" assertion is prone to falsehood and exaggeration.

Look at a few examples of this claim:

  • Democrats say that the economic policies of Republicans under President George W. Bush are "failed policies" because after those policies we had the 2008 Financial Crisis;
  • Republicans say that the economic policies of Democrats under President Barack Obama are "failed policies" because after them we had an anemic recovery;
  • People say that the United Kingdom's policy of austerity in the wake of the Financial Crisis is a "failed policy" because it hasn't kept the U.K. out of recession;
  • People say that deficit spending is a "failed policy" because Greece, Spain, and other countries have engaged in it and their economies are in tatters;
  • People say that increased spending on education is a "failed policy" because the U.S. has done so over the past 30 years without seeing an increase in international test scores;
  • Medicare is called a "failed policy" because it's run way over budget;
  • The War on Poverty is a "failed policy" because there is still a lot of poverty in the U.S.;
  • The War on Drugs is a "failed policy" because Americans still use a lot of illegal narcotics.

The only real way to settle these empirical disputes is with rigorous experiments that use a control group. For instance, set up two identical economies and implement, say, $100 billion worth of stimulus spending in one of them but not the other. Then you'll see whether $100 billion worth of stimulus spending makes a difference for better or worse.

But, of course, that's not practical. On any number of issues that we care about -- economics, crime, war, education, etc. -- it's just not possible to set up large-scale experiments like this. You can't set up two $1 trillion economies and then give them different income tax rates and see what the economic results are. You can't set up two identical cities and then implement stop-and-frisk policies in one of them and see what difference results in crime statistics. You can't set up two identical school systems, give one of them 5% smaller class sizes, and then see if there's a difference in test scores.

Without data from experiments like this, you can only rely on historical data. But historical data is never comparing two situations that are identical except for one difference. You can't make the argument, "Well, they implemented their policies and it got bad results, but when we implemented our policies we got good results, therefore our policies are good and theirs are failed", unless the only difference between those two situations is the difference in the policies implemented. But that's never the case with historical data. So you can never completely rule out the possibility that something else is behind the difference in results.

The argument -- "after these policies were implemented good results happened, so the policies are good" -- is simplistic and flawed. Even if it's true that good things happened, just because A precedes B doesn't mean A causes B (that kind of flawed reasoning is known as false causation). Plus, even if the good results were caused by the policies, it's still an open question whether a different set of policies might have yielded even better results.

Likewise, the argument -- "after these policies were implemented bad results happened, so the polices are bad" -- is wrongheaded on the same lines. The one preceding the other doesn't mean that the one caused the other, and it doesn't rule out the possibility that different policies might have resulted in even worse results.

People in politics like to act as if it's obvious which are the best policies on, say, economics or the military. But the lack of rigorous experimental data makes it tough to know for sure which policies are successful and which ones are failures.

Think about it: People are difficult to predict. It's tough to predict sporting events, elections, overseas political upheavals, wars, technological innovation, whether a relationship will last longer than a year, whether someone will like your outfit, or what the next fad among teenagers will be. People typically approach these topics with some humility, because they know how easy it is to be wrong about these sorts of things. But then the very same people act as if something like the economy is all figured out, and that the right economic policies are so obvious that anyone who doesn't support those policies is an appropriate object of derision and ridicule, perhaps by calling them evil or stupid. The difference in attitude is unwarranted and baffling.

Beyond this, there are plenty of other difficulties with the "failed policies" assertion: What are the agreed-upon, measurable benchmarks for success for the policy? Has the policy had enough time to work? Was the policy fully implemented as intended, or were there changes and amendments made to it?

This last point is worth expanding on. People are often condemned for "failed policies" even though they didn't get the policies they wanted. Obama didn't get as much stimulus as he wanted in 2009; Bush didn't get the Social Security reform he wanted in his second term; President Ronald Reagan didn't get the spending cuts he wanted; President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) -- even with huge majorities in Congress -- didn't get everything he wanted, and unsuccessfully tried to pack the Supreme Court in order to have his policies implemented.

So, when the "failed policies" assertion is made, we should demand clarification on the following points:

  • What was the goal of the policy? What was the standard of success? What were the specific, measurable outcomes that the policy promised?
  • What is the appropriate time frame for evaluating the policy?
  • Was the policy fully implemented, or implemented without serious exceptions?
  • Were there any alternative policies that could have achieved the goal in question?

This sort of assertion shouldn't be made carelessly, and we shouldn't let our politicians be so quick to insist that some or other policy has clearly and unambiguously failed.

"Now we have to overcome some big challenges, I will admit that. First, too many of our representatives in Washington are in the grips of a failed economic theory called trickle down economics. Now, I do not doubt their sincerity. But it has been proven wrong again and again. But there still are people in Congress who insist on cutting taxes for the wealthy instead of investing in our future. They careen from one self- inflicted crisis to another. Shutting down the government, threatening to default on our national debt, refusing to make the common-sense investments that used to have broad bipartisan support, like rebuilding our roads and our bridges, our tunnels, our highways, our airports. Or investing in better education from zero through high school and college. … And if the evidence were there to support this ideology, I would have to acknowledge that. But we have seen the results. Twice now in the past 30 years, a Republican president has caused an economic mess and a Democratic president has had to come in and clean it up."
-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, June 22, 2016.

Comment: There are lots of things going on here. Where has it been proven that so-called "trickle-down economics" is a failed policy? Where has this policy been tested rigorously – that is, against an otherwise-identical control group? Such experiments are difficult to craft, and almost never occur on a large scale. It may be true that there have been cases where trickle-down economics has been implemented and bad economic news has followed, but it's propter hoc reasoning to jump to the conclusion that the former caused the latter. Correlation isn't necessarily causation. (Perhaps the bad economic news would have been even worse without the trickle-down policies, it's impossible to know unless you set up a control group for comparison.) Also, who has proposed not investing in our future? Perhaps people have proposed tax cuts for the wealthy along with spending less on investment than Clinton supports, but is there anyone who has said we shouldn't spend any money on education or infrastructure? This sounds like a straw man she's setting up to knock over. Finally, Clinton also resorts to "common sense" rhetoric, as well as "bipartisan" rhetoric (if the Republicans aren't supporting common-sense investments, then how can they have bipartisan support?).

"This group needs to be confronted with serious proposals. And this is a very significant threat we face. And the president has left us unsafe. He spoke the other night to the American people to reassure us. I wish he hadn't spoken at all. He made things worse. Because what he basically said was we are going to keep doing what we're doing now, and what we are doing now is not working."
-- Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), December 15, 2015.

Comment: This is "failed policies" rhetoric.

"We're taking back America. … Obama has failed us."
-- Unidentified supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, October 10, 2015.

Comment: This is "real Americans" and "failed policies" rhetoric.

CLINTON: I'm not going to sit here and tell people that I make up my mind – that's the Republicans. They make up their mind, they're never bothered by evidence.

TODD: Bernie Sanders has been on the – sort of, where you are on these issues, Bernie Sanders was there, when it came to marriage, 20 years ago. Do you think one of the reasons he's doing well right now is some progressives think, well, you know what, he was there when it wasn't popular?

CLINTON: Well, he can speak for himself, and I certainly respect his views. I can just tell you that I am not someone who stakes out a position and holds it regardless of the evidence, or regardless of the way that I perceive what's happening in the world around me. And, as I was saying, that's where the Republicans are. You know, they're still believing in trickle down economics, even though it was a disaster not once, but twice for our country.
-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D-NY), September 27, 2015, during an interview with Chuck Todd of NBC News. Clinton was questioned on her change of position on certain issues, in comparison to the positions of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Comment: Clinton is defending herself for flip-flopping on various issues. She doesn't answer the question of whether or not Sanders' constancy is causing his rise in the polls. Clinton also accuses Republicans of not caring about truth, and of "failed policies".

Secretary General of the Shitte paramilitary Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said on Friday, that the U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy in fighting ISIS has failed.

Nasrallah stated in a television interview, “The failure of the U.S. attempts to defeat ISIS has pushed Russia to intervene directly in the conflict,” pointing out that, “The Russian militarily presence in Syria includes advanced and very accurate weapons as well as fighter jets and helicopters,” welcoming this presence which supports the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
-- Hassan Nasrallah, September 25, 2015, as related in a story by Amre Sarhan of Iraqi News.

Comment: This is "failed policies" rhetoric.

I would argue that all of the G.O.P. candidates are calling for policies that would be deeply destructive at home, abroad, or both. But even if you like the broad thrust of modern Republican policies, it should worry you that the men and woman on that stage are clearly living in a world of fantasies and fictions. And some seem willing to advance their ambitions with outright lies. Let’s start at the shallow end, with the fantasy economics of the establishment candidates. You’re probably tired of hearing this, but modern G.O.P. economic discourse is completely dominated by an economic doctrine — the sovereign importance of low taxes on the rich — that has failed completely and utterly in practice over the past generation. … If the discussion of economics was alarming, the discussion of foreign policy was practically demented. Almost all the candidates seem to believe that American military strength can shock-and-awe other countries into doing what we want without any need for negotiations, and that we shouldn’t even talk with foreign leaders we don’t like. … I began writing for The Times during the 2000 election campaign, and what I remember above all from that campaign is the way the conventions of “evenhanded” reporting allowed then-candidate George W. Bush to make clearly false assertions — about his tax cuts, about Social Security — without paying any price. As I wrote at the time, if Mr. Bush said the earth was flat, we’d see headlines along the lines of “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.” Now we have presidential candidates who make Mr. Bush look like Abe Lincoln. But who will tell the people?
-- Pundit Paul Krugman, September 18, 2015.

Comment: Krugman is using "stupid" name-calling as well as the "they'll say anything" caricature. He's also accusing Republicans of failed policies. Finally, Krugman is using the "only my opponent" caricature, saying it is a false equivalence to say Republicans and Democrats are equally guilty of making false assertions.

"I agree that it's good for Sanders to go out and to address racial issues since he's never been identified with it … But what he's doing now is he's criticizing this idea of inequality. It's a great idea if you're the opposing party. His party, the Democrats, Obama has been in office for seven years. They own the economy. The idea that you're running against inequality, the whole middle class is being held back, nobody is advancing, It's all stacked against you. Well, they've had the power for seven years and done nothing."
-- Pundit Charles Krauthammer, September 14, 2015. His remarks referred to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Comment: Krauthammer is using “failed policies” rhetoric against Democrats.

"And they talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. Their menu doesn’t have a whole lot of options for the middle class. The one thing that the bus full of people who are fighting to lead the Republican ticket all share is they keep on coming up with the same old trickle-down, “you’re on your own” economics that helped bring about the crisis back in 2007-2008 in the first place."
-- President Barack Obama, July 2, 2015.

Comment: This is "failed policies" rhetoric. What evidence does Obama have – apart from flawed post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning – that Republican fiscal policy caused the Financial Crisis? Were Democrats – or, was Obama – offering any policies in the 2000 or 2004 presidential elections that would have prevented the recession?

"[Obama] mentioned that we all need to do soul searching. I think he needs to do some soul searching about failed liberal policies that have prolonged the misery in the American ghetto. You know, he said this is society has to step up and do more, and I reject that thing out of hand. This is lifestyle choices. These are flawed lifestyle choices people make like dropping out of school, like failing to stay employed, like having kids out of wedlock, like father absent homes. Those are behavior changes that have to go on in these central cities and these American ghettos if we're going to see a change."
-- Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, posted April 28, 2015.

Comment: This is "failed policies" rhetoric.

"In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new."
-- President Barack Obama, January 20, 2015, during the 2015 State of the Union address.

Comment: Obama is claiming that the embargo on trade with Cuba is a failed policy, and that adaptation and adjustment rather than persistence is the right tactic.


Examples from 2012.

"Now, I believe myself that the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense -- and you have to make your own decisions as to what the President knows -- that this war is lost, and that the surge is not accomplishing anything as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq yesterday."
-- Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), April 19, 2007.

Comment: President George W. Bush announced the Iraq "surge" in January 2007. By October 2007, violence in Iraq had dropped significantly, and continued to decline through 2008. How much of a role the surge played in decreasing the violence is certainly debatable, but it does look like Reid was too quick to declare that the war was "lost".

"In 1981 our critics charged that letting you keep more of your earnings would trigger an inflationary explosion, send interest rates soaring, and destroy our economy. Well, we cut your tax rates anyway by nearly 25 percent. And what that helped trigger was falling inflation, falling interest rates, and the strongest economic expansion in 30 years."
-- President Ronald Reagan, May 28, 1985.

Comment: Reagan is using "failed policies" rhetoric on his critics, noting that they made false predictions about what his policies would do. But is Reagan resorting to false causation reasoning? Was the drop in inflation and interest rates, etc., caused by Reagan's policies, or just preceded by them?

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)