Thursday, March 15, 2012

Obama's "Flat-Earth" Name-Calling Misfires on History (and Civility)

Speaking about energy policy today (March 15, 2012), President Barack Obama criticized Republicans, saying:
"Lately, we’ve heard a lot of professional politicians, a lot of the folks who are running for a certain office … they've been talking down new sources of energy. They dismiss wind power. They dismiss solar power. They make jokes about biofuels. ... We’re trying to move towards the future; they want to be stuck in the past. We’ve heard this kind of thinking before. Let me tell you something. If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. They would not have believed that the world was round."
Obama is wrong on two fronts, here. First as a matter of civil debate, and second as a matter of historical fact.

The Civility Side

On the first point, Obama is engaging in name-calling, a derisive caricature of Republicans.

Obama is saying that Republicans' only policy on energy is to "drill, drill, drill" more oil. But, while it's true that the GOP presidential contenders do emphasize drilling for oil more than Obama and Democrats do, they have many energy proposals apart from that. (This is known as the "silver bullet" caricature, where you say your opponent has only one proposal to fix a certain issue, when in fact they have several.)

For instance:

Far from Obama's derisive misrepresentation, Republicans don't have a "drill oil and do nothing else" strategy on energy. 

And this caricature is derisive. Obama is demonizing Republicans by making it sound like they're opposed to innovation. "They want us to be stuck in the past", Obama says.

But that's not true. Obama and Republicans have legitimate differences of opinion about which energy sources are most reliable and most feasible for the near-term and further into the future. You don't demonize people who disagree with you on such complicated matters by deriding them as people who believe the Earth is flat.

In fact, that kind of caricature is just as bad as when Republicans have caricatured Obama as a Luddite who wants to get rid of ATMs. I'm sure Obama doesn't like being demonized that way, he would do well to treat his opponents with the same respect he demands for himself.

Unfortunately, White House Spokesman Jay Carney says that this sort of derision is not just "appropriate", it's also a "policy message" rather than a campaign message. Well, so much for treating others the way you'd like to be treated.

The History Side

Secondly -- and this is the kind of ironic part -- in suggesting that Republicans are akin to flat-Earthers, Obama gets some basic history wrong.

When Christopher Columbus decided to sail west from Spain to Japan, China, and Asia more generally, he faced a lot of criticism, but not because his critics believed the Earth was flat. Educated Europeans by that time mostly agreed with Columbus that the Earth was round, that is was a sphere.

Rather, Columbus' critics disagreed with him about how big the globe was. Columbus thought it was small enough so that the ocean between Spain and Japan could be crossed by boat in one non-stop trip. His critics disagreed, insisting that the globe -- and therefore the distance between Spain and Japan -- was bigger, so big that the ships of Columbus' day couldn't possibly carry enough supplies to keep the crew from starving before they reached land.

And it turns out Columbus' critics were right. By the time he and his crew stumbled onto the islands of the Caribbean, they had been at sea for five weeks and had not made it even half-way to Japan. If not for the Americas standing in his way, Columbus and his crew likely would have starved. (Well, Columbus might have been beaten to death, but the rest of his crew would probably have starved.)

So, in suggesting Republicans were as ignorant as people who don't know basic geography, Obama displayed that he is ignorant of basic history.

To be fair, lots of people are misinformed on this one, but I wonder if Obama will deride his own ignorance on this matter the way he seems to enjoy deriding what he sees as GOP ignorance...

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Are Misogynist Slurs a "Wonderful Gift"? A "Godsend"?

Nearly two weeks ago, radio pundit Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" for asking that other people help pay for contraception. The incident sparked a flurry of media coverage, and Limbaugh apologized days later.

Now, some people are suggesting that the derisive, misogynist name-calling Limbaugh used was a good thing. Limbaugh himself has been playing clips of these comments on his radio show.

For instance, this is Terry O'Neill, President of the National Organization for Women (NOW) -- which has been largely in agreement with Fluke on matters of contraception -- speaking on March 10, 2012:
"The work we have ahead of us is not gonna be easy. Right now it really seems like, you know, we've got this godsend named Rush Limbaugh who has, like dropped this thing in our lap, which is just wonderful. But the road ahead is really not gonna be completely rosy. We've got to be very clear on what the challenges are, and very clear about how we can move our own agenda forward in the current political climate."
And then there is a collection of quotes from media figures about how the incident is to the benefit of Democrats and President Barack Obama:
Columnist Sally Quinn: "Obama has just been given a huge gift by the Republicans, and by the Religious Right, and by Rush Limbaugh!" 
Columnist LZ Granderson: "It's a gift to Democrats! This was a prime opportunity for him to step up as a leader and say, "What Rush Limbaugh said was bad."" 
CNN Anchor Don Lemon: "Is this a gift to Democrats?"  
CNN Anchor Jack Cafferty: "The biggest gift to President Obama? Limbaugh's comments!" 
CNN Correspondent Jessica Yellin: "You know Democrats will say is: How could the President resist this opportunity?" 
NBC News Special Correspondent Tom Brokaw: "The more damage is done to the party, the more opportunities there are for the Democrats, like the Rush Limbaugh statements." 
TV Pundit Chris Matthews: "Over at team Obama, they’re smiling! President Obama's great fortune!"
Democratic Strategist Bob Shrum: "Obama was the big winner!" 
[audio clips end]
Limbaugh: "Anyway, the president of the NOW gang was speaking to the assembled NAGs at the convention and laughing about what I had done, laughing about what a great "godsend" it was. They're not offended, folks. They're not outraged. They're not upset over the moral depravity of any of it. They're happy. They're clapping their hands. It was a "godsend.""

This plays into the "rooting for failure" accusation. That is, the accusation where you deride your opponent by saying that they are so out of whack, so bent on gaining power, so unconcerned about doing the right thing that they view bad news for others as good news for themselves if it helps them get reelected.

Democrats were accused of rooting for failure when President George W. Bush was dealing with the violence in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 -- it was said that Democrats viewed military failure in Iraq as being good for Democratic election hopes in 2006 and 2008. And Republicans have recently been accused of rooting for failure as President Barack Obama deals with the economic situation -- it's said that Republicans view bad economic news as being good for Republican election hopes in 2012.

So, here you have any number of people suggesting (or, in the case of O'Neill, embracing the idea) that a despicable incident -- the use of misogynist slurs against Fluke -- is going to be good for the electoral prospects of Democrats or other groups' political agendas.

Is this rooting for failure? Is this Democrats viewing bad news for the country as good news for themselves?

If it isn't -- if Democrats can say things like this and it doesn't count as rooting for failure -- then I don't see how the "rooting for failure" charge can ever be logically used by them against Republicans.

Not that logical consistency is sacrosanct in politics. But, really, if this isn't reveling in bad news, then nothing is.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Rhetoric: "Civility is Bogus"

Frequently, a politician or a pundit will dismiss civility. They'll say that it's bogus, or that it's a scam, or that it's a dodge. Usually, they're saying this because they've noticed that -- while their opponents call for civility -- they don't live up to it themselves.

People who are dismissive of civility usually say something like: "My opponent keeps calling for me to be civil, but they never denounce the name-calling coming from their own side. It's just a standard they want to impose on us without following it themselves. Civility is bogus. It's just asking us to unilaterally disarm."

There is, of course, an awful lot of hypocrisy when it comes to calls for civil debate. It's true that, often times, the people who advocate civility don't follow the rules of civil debate themselves.

But this isn't a flaw with civil debate, it's a fault on behalf of (some of) the people who advocate civil debate. Just because someone isn't practicing what they preach doesn't mean that what they preach is false.

If someone is preaching the right course of action but not following it, point out that they're not following it. Don't reject the right course of action just because someone else is being hypocritical in their support of it.

"Everything’s political correct. I mean, you watch what you say, you say something a little bit off, you end up with headlines. It’s like a bunch of babies. Like a bunch of dumb babies. And, believe me, folks: the world is laughing at us."
-- Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, June 11, 2016.

Comment: Trump is dismissing the idea of political correctness, which is perhaps the same as dismissing civility. And he is resorting to name-calling, belittling people who advocate being politically correct. Does this mean that we don't have to be politically correct in criticizing Trump himself? What sorts of things does that allow us to say about him? If Trump is called names, and he complains about it, does that mean he's being a "baby"?

EARNEST: Dr. Carson in many of the polls ranks second or third, so at least in the last few months he's been quite successful in elevating his status in the Republican Party. And we've seen a willingness on the part of many of those candidates to countenance offensive views, all in pursuit of political support. And in the case of the Republican primary, in pursuit of votes. And I think what's particularly disappointing to many observers, including me, is that we haven't seen a significant outcry from all of the other candidates in the Republican race.

RUSH: See, this is how they do it. Did you notice the first thing he said in this answer? He puts up here, "A willingness on the part of many of those candidates to countenance offensive views." You know, I can't tell you how this ticks me off. This presumption that nothing the left ever says is offensive. Nothing they ever say is controversial. That's just normal, it's free flowing, it's everything's kind and decent and tolerant and all that. And these are some of the most intolerant bigots among us, people on the left. … So, anyway, that's how the White House is dealing with it. "We just don't like these offensive views, particularly disappointing to many observers, including me, that we haven't seen a significant outcry from all the other candidates." This is how they do it. A Republican stands up, says something not politically correct, it then becomes incumbent on every other Republican to denounce the guilty party. This is the one-way street, this false premise, these narratives here that the left creates that I'm telling Republicans ought have nothing to do with, just nuke and just ignore these narratives out of the box.
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, September 21, 2015, responding to remarks made earlier that day by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

Comment: Limbaugh is complaining that there is a double standard in how Democrats enforce civil debate, and seems to be arguing that there's no point advocating civility. Limbaugh leaves out that – like Democrats – Republicans are also self-servingly inconsistent in enforcing civil debate.

"So they do this poll. And in the poll, I score really high marks on almost anything. Other than they thought I wasn't a nice person. They said who's the nicest, and I was like pretty low on that part. And I'm a nice person. But who cares. A woman came up to me, she said "I'm not sure that you're nice enough to be president." And I said, "You know what, this is not going to be an election based on a nice person. It's going to be based on a competent person. We're tired of the nice people.""
-- Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, August 21, 2015.

Comment: It's not clear precisely what Trump means by being "nice", but this could be either "get tough and hit back" rhetoric, or an assertion that civility is bogus.

"Civility in the face of terrorism is a vice."
-- Pundit Mark Levin, July 30, 2015, during the 2nd hour of his radio show. His remarks came in response to an article by Craig Shirley, entitled "In Defense of Incivility".

Comment: Levin is dismissing civility, but in doing so he's merely knocking over a straw man. Who has ever said that civility is the same as pacifism, or that we should be civil to terrorists?

"My problem is, why is it only us? Why is it only we be concerned about tone. The meanest, most extreme people in American politics are members of the Democrat Party and the American left. Tone? These are the people rooting for people to die on Twitter! These are the people rooting for people to get cancer on Twitter. These are the people who are intolerant, mean-spirited. They're the bullies, and they don't care one bit about their tone, and they don't get punished for it. Yet we come along and we're the ones that have to make sure that we're not seen as mean-spirited and bullyish and only one way of looking at anything. (sigh) This whole notion of "tone," I totally understand the art of the persuasion here and I understand where tone can come into it. But the problem I have is that all of these rules that end up shackling people, all these rules that end up causing people to be not who they are on our side, are never applied to people on the left. Look what these people say about -- take your pick. What they say about anything. George W. Bush. Sarah Palin. Take your pick of any Republican anywhere, and what they say about them, and they're never punished for it. Nobody ever goes to them and says, "Your tone needs to be moderated a little bit here, Mr. Hoyer. Your tone needs to moderated a little, Ms. Pelosi." Dingy Harry? For crying out! Tone?"
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, May 21, 2015, remarking on comments made earlier that day by Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) on a need to improve the tone of political debate.

Comment: Limbaugh is demonizing Democrats and liberals with the "only my opponent" caricature. What evidence does he have – rigorous evidence that doesn't involve selective cherry-picking – that Democrats and liberals are more uncivil than Republicans and conservatives? He is asserting that there is hypocrisy in the application of standards of civil debate, that Democrats and liberals impose them on Republicans and conservatives but not on themselves. This might not amount to saying that civility is bogus, but he does seem to say it's not worth policing.

"Let me just say this. It is fantastic to finally see some people realizing what's going on when the left, the media, keeps going to our candidates, "What do you think about what Rudy said about Obama?" In the first place, Scott Walker is showing everybody how to answer that question, how to answer all those questions. And another thing about this, we're also finally getting people turning it around on 'em. "Hey, why don't you go ask some Democrats what they think of Bill Clinton flying all over the world with a pedophile? Why don't you guys go ask the Democrats what it's like to have to stand up and defend Joe Biden every day." It's always a one-way street. Obama goes out and says some crazy things, apologizes for the country, or Rudy will come out and say, "I don't think he loves the country. Not the way we do." Then the press will go to other Republicans and ask them two things, to condemn Rudy and to validate Obama. … But it never works the other way. … And finally there's some people now pointing out the right way to do this. Don't answer the question and turn it back on 'em. For example, Scott Walker, this is just an example. He had his own answer to it. He was asked about Obama's Christianity. He said: I don't know. I don't know whether Obama's a Christian. Why are you asking me? Go ask him. It doesn't matter to me whether Obama's a Christian. … Somebody will ask a Republican, "Well, what do you think about Rudy, Rudy insulting Obama, Rudy saying that Obama doesn't love America?" The response is, "You know, I don't remember the last time you guys went around and started asking Hillary if she's very worried about her husband flying all over the world with a pedophile and showing up at the pedophile's homes in New York and Florida. When are you gonna ask Bill Clinton what it's like, when are you gonna ask people in the Democrat Party to defend Bill Clinton for doing this kind of stuff?" … A TV station in Florida, WPBF … They were interviewing Rubio about Giuliani's remarks, and Marco Rubio said, "I don't feel like I'm in a position to have to answer for every person in my party that makes a claim." … This is Rubio: "Democrats are not asked to answer every time Joe Biden says something embarrassing, so I don't know why I should answer every time a Republican does. I'll suffice it to say I believe the president loves America. I think his ideas are bad.""
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, February 23, 2015, discussing the responses by Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's remarks that President Barack Obama does not love the country.

Comment: Limbaugh and Rubio (and perhaps Walker) are saying that it is not their job to police civility. Inconsistent treatment on the part of the media when it comes to reporting and condemning unacceptable rhetoric (that is, hypocritically going easy on Democrats and liberals while piling on Republicans and conservatives, such that the latter get hit with guilt by association accusations but not the former) is no excuse failing to repudiate name-calling and invective. The fact that people fail to be consistent in implementing civility doesn't mean civility is bogus.

"You know, Obama is really standing in quicksand. He wants to attach virtue to himself. He's the leader in this new wave of civility. He's going to lead by example. He's the guy that's gonna sit around and police all this incivility, like when he sat there and laughed at the White House Correspondents Dinner when the comedian Wanda Sykes said she hoped my kidneys failed and I died. The president of the United States sat there and laughed, the guy who wants now to attach himself to the virtue of civility. And, of course, you remember all of the offended audience members at the White House Correspondents Dinner who walked out on Wanda Sykes. Well, of course you don't, because none of them did."
-- Radio pundit Rush Limbaugh, March 6, 2012.

Comment: Limbaugh doesn't dismiss civility, here, but he cites the hypocrisy in his opponents' advocacy of civil debate.

"Both the Politico and the Huffing and Puffington Post are dusting off a preposterous, long-since-discredited rumor that Rick Perry is gay and that his wife is leaving him. These rumors are seven years old, and the Politico's doing a story about the rumor be seven years old. And that's the left wing civility that we're supposed to emulate. Right."
-- Radio pundit Rush Limbaugh, June 21, 2011.

"the commentariat was in raptures over the Serious, Courageous, Game-Changing Ryan plan. But now that the plan has been exposed as the cruel nonsense it is, what we're hearing a lot about is the need for more civility in the discourse. President Obama did a bad thing by calling cruel nonsense cruel nonsense; he hurt Republican feelings ... The easy, and perfectly fair, shot is to talk about the hypocrisy here; where were all the demands for civility when Republicans were denouncing Obama as a socialist, accusing him of creating death panels, etc..? ... But the main point is, what are we supposed to have a civil discussion about? The truth is that the two parties have both utterly different goals and utterly different views about how the world works."
-- Columnist Paul Krugman, "Civility is the Last Refuge of Scoundrels", April 16, 2011.

"here's Obama setting up one of his themes tonight, which is civility and moving to the center and we've all gotta get along and his guys are already out trashing Paul Ryan, who hasn't said anything yet. He's gonna be delivering the Republican response. … Eric Cantor has invited Pelosi to sit next to him at this thing tonight. … Where'd this idea of sitting together come from? Whose idea was it? Was it Coburn's? Whoever it was, it's all a reaction to Tucson, is it not? … and in the meantime, "The GOP's War Against the Poor and Sick." This is a story by Andrew Leonard,, Republicans want the poor to die on the street like they used to. … So we get all these calls for civility which we've nailed here as just intimidation tactics to get Republicans to shut up. It's working. Now, listen to this last paragraph from this Leonard guy at "I'm sure there are plenty of conservatives who want to get rid of Medicaid altogether. If poor old people can't pay for nursing home care then let them die in the street, like they used to." … So Obama gets to occupy this lofty new perch of Mr. Civil, while his minions are out there doing what he is essentially instructing them to do. … But I see this desire to appear to want to get along with Obama, to want to get along with the Democrats. … Meanwhile, as I said, while all this is going on, the Democrat Party which Obama leads is trashing Paul Ryan in advance of his reply to Obama's speech. And this is what the leftists do. Obama goes out there, he takes the high road, he pretends to be something he isn't and the hacks and the thugs smear and attack. … Somebody out there in the Twitterati just tweeted: "This State of the Union bipartisan seating thing is the political equivalent of a comb-over: Looks odd and fools nobody." I wonder if Eric Cantor will buy Nancy Pelosi a corsage. "What's so bad about this, Mr. Limbaugh? Are you against civility? Are you against people getting along?" No. No. I just -- You Democrats don't mean any of this. This is just a show. (groans) Jeez! … It's not that I have anything intrinsically against people sitting next to each other, although in this case I know what it is. It is a trick, as we all know, to get the Republicans to go along with hiding their majority."
-- Radio pundit Rush Limbaugh, January 25, 2011.

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

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Name-Calling from Limbaugh, Krugman

Two of the most reliable political figures when it comes to name-calling -- no, that's not a compliment -- are radio pundit Rush Limbaugh and columnist Paul Krugman. I can turn on Limbaugh's radio show or read Krugman's column and it's almost guaranteed that I'll find an example of some sort of derisive misrepresentation of their opponents.

And March 8, 2012 was no exception.

Take a look at Krugman's column from that date, lovingly titled "Ignorance Is Strength":
"One way in which Americans have always been exceptional has been in our support for education. First we took the lead in universal primary education; then the “high school movement” made us the first nation to embrace widespread secondary education. And after World War II, public support, including the G.I. Bill and a huge expansion of public universities, helped large numbers of Americans to get college degrees. But now one of our two major political parties has taken a hard right turn against education, or at least against education that working Americans can afford. Remarkably, this new hostility to education is shared by the social conservative and economic conservative wings of the Republican coalition, now embodied in the persons of Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. ... So whenever you hear Republicans say that they are the party of traditional values, bear in mind that they have actually made a radical break with America’s tradition of valuing education."
Republicans certainly differ from Democrats when it comes to education policy, but it's not at all fair to say they don't value education or that they view ignorance as strength.

Basically, Republicans believe that a lot of government policies intended to help education are wasteful. For instance, the U.S. spends a lot on education K-12 compared to other countries, but U.S. students get mediocre test scores on international rankings for math and science.

They also believe that too much student aid drives the cost of college up. Less aid might cause the price to come down, or force students to choose majors with more reliable incomes, such as in engineering.

Maybe Republicans are wrong on these points -- predicting outcomes in education and the economy more generally is often difficult -- but it hardly makes them actively opposed to education.

Limbaugh on the same day shared these thoughts on his program:
"I think he likes high gasoline prices because he wants to change what people drive. He wants... (sigh) What I'm gonna tell you is the truth. It's unbelievable. You don't want to believe it. It doesn't sound possible. Not in this country. It's so unbelievable, you're going to reject me saying it. You're gonna cast it off as, "Ah, that's a bit far out." Obama wants you to have less freedom, less mobility, less ability to move around. There are people like that. Most people that run countries are like that. We are the exception. That's what's been so wonderful, what's such a blessing about the United States. Most of the people who have ever lived had lived under rulers, not people who govern them. He wants you to have less money. You're right: He wants you depending on him. Food stamps or whatever it is. But ultimately it's about usurping your freedom and transferring it to the government. He doesn't think you're smart enough to live your life responsibly. He doesn't think you'll willingly turn over your power to him. He's going to have to find ways to trick you out of it. That's what's going on with this regime."

In other words, the reason President Barack Obama opposed the Keystone Pipeline is because he wants higher gas prices, and the reason he wants higher gas prices is because he wants Americans to have a harder time making ends meet so that they have to turn to government to take care of them because he believes Americans aren't smart enough to take care of themselves.

Just like with Krugman, this is a derisive caricature. There's all sorts of reasonable motives that Obama could have instead, right? He might believe that the pipeline does more environmental damage than economic good. Or he might believe that more time is needed to study the pipeline's economic effects, so that green-lighting it now is premature.

Maybe he doesn't want to spawn more dependency among Americans, maybe he just disagrees about which economic policies -- again, economics being an area of reasonable disagreement -- will have the best results.

Interestingly, both Krugman and Limbaugh are dismissive of calls for civility.

Krugman dismisses Republican calls for civility because he sees that Republicans are hypocrites who don't live up to that standard themselves, they just want to impose it on Democrats.

Limbaugh dismisses Democratic calls for civility because he sees that Democrats are hypocrites who don't live up to that standard themselves, they just want to impose it on Republicans.

They're great at noticing the hypocrisy of their opponents, but not their own hypocrisy. And that's why we have such a problem with incivility, because people aren't going to own up to how they and their own side are contributing to the problem.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Rhetoric: "Rooting for Failure"

One of the ways that politicians and pundits demonize their opponents is by saying that their opponents are "rooting for failure".

If one party is in power -- say, it holds the Presidency or the Congress -- they respond to criticism of their policies by saying that their critics want those policies to fail so that they can gain power in the next election. They claim that their opponents would "rather have the country fail so they can succeed politically". Or they say that "good news for the country is bad news for them".

But this is just name-calling. People reasonably disagree about which policies are best for the country. The fact that I don't want you implementing policies that I believe are bad doesn't mean I'm rooting for failure. It just means you and I disagree -- again, reasonably, given how complicated morality and the empirical world are -- about which policies will serve the country and its people best.

This is the flip side of the "failed policies" accusation. I become president and implement a bunch of policies. You quickly declare them to be "failed policies" before they've really had a chance to work, and so I accuse you of "rooting for failure".

"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.

"Did you ever notice that a global warming catastrophe is never predicted for next year or next month? Have you noticed that ever since Hurricane Katrina, they've been hoping for more of them, so that they can use that to prove it, and there haven't been any more? We haven't had a major hurricane strike the country in 10 years, and yet they claim that Katrina was evidence galore of global warming? I go through all of these things that you've heard for years, just the common-sensical ways of rejecting this premise."
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, November 3, 2015.

Comment: Limbaugh seems to be accusing people who believe in global warming – though he doesn’t name anyone in particular – of rooting for failure. He's also claiming that it's common sense to disbelieve global warming.

"Overall, though, we’re making enormous progress, and it does make you wonder, why is it that Republican politicians are so down on America. Have you noticed that? I mean, they are gloomy. They’re like Grumpy Cat. Everything is terrible according to them. We’re doomed. I mean, I know it’s political season, but you listen to them and they’ve constructed this entire separate reality. It’s like the Twilight Zone. And according to their story, their narrative, everything was terrific back in 2008 when unemployment was skyrocketing and uninsured rates were rising and folks were losing their homes and their jobs, we were engaged in two wars, bin Laden was still at large. If you were listening to them, those were like the good old days. The golden years. And then I came in and the Democrats came in, but according to them that’s when everything all went to heck. Which is strange. I mean, it’s a hard argument to make. There was an article, I think, in The New York Times today, or maybe it was yesterday, where they pointed out that it’s very hard for them to make the arguments they make about tax cuts for the wealthy and doing the same stuff that they’ve been promoting, and trying to eliminate regulations on the big banks and all that, when the empirical evidence shows that when Democrats control the White House and we’ve got a Democratic Congress the economy does better and when they’re in charge, it does worse. Just look at the facts. Don’t take my word for it, go back, take a look at – all right, here’s Bill Clinton’s presidency, and then there’s Bush presidency and then there’s my presidency and, take a look. And you’ve gotta feel bad for the fact-checkers, for the Republicans, because they’ve gotta spend hours trying to keep up with some of the crazy stuff that their candidates are claiming. And the reason they have to make up stuff is because they don’t have a record to run on. They’re offering the same policies that caused so many problems in the first place. They ran on them in 2008, they ran on them in 2012, they’re running on them now. … And it's a shame when politicians spend all their time trying to make people feel bad, or more typically, trying to make them feel scared. Talking down the country all the time because it serves your politics. … We [Democrats] have got an optimistic vision about where this country can go if the politics of obstruction and fear-mongering are set aside and we start working together as a country."
-- President Barack Obama, October 23, 2015.

Comment: First, Obama seems to be accusing Republicans of rooting for failure, obstruction, divisiveness and fear-mongering, and saying they are doing so for "political" motives. This is unfair. Obama, when he ran for office in 2004 and 2008, was frequently critical of the country's state of affairs; does this mean he was "down on America"? Second, Obama is distorting Republicans' position: what Republican has ever said that everything was terrific back in 2008? Third, Obama is making a "correlation is causation" argument when it comes to the economy and Democrats, which is additionally flawed because Democrats and Republicans aren't monolithic when it comes to policies (some Republicans have raised taxes, like Ronald Reagan, and some Democrats have lowered them, like JFK), and because Republicans were in control of Congress during the boom years of Clinton's presidency, Democrats were in control of Congress when the Great Recession happened, and Congress is in control of Republicans now that we're making "enormous progress". Of course, sometimes good or bad things happen when a party is in power that were set in motion earlier by a different party, or that are out of anyone's political control altogether.

"Why are all these Republicans so down on America?" Obama said. "Listening to them is really depressing and it doesn't match up with the truth."

Obama urged those attending a fundraiser for Washington Sen. Patty Murray to get involved in local, state and national politics.

"Our system is only as good as what we put into it," he said, criticizing the "false prophets who spout things that under examination don't really make any sense, but feed your biases and your fears."

"I'm proud of the fact that we are not just the party that is against everything," Obama said.
-- President Barack Obama, October 9, 2015, as related by a Politico story by Jennifer Shutt.

Comment: Obama is demonizing Republicans, saying they are fear-mongering and simply being obstructionists. Obama may also be accusing them of rooting for failure.

"Over the past five and a half years, our businesses have created more than 13 million new jobs. The unemployment rate is lower than it’s been in over seven years. Manufacturing is growing. Housing is bouncing back. We’ve reduced our deficits by two-thirds. And 16 million more Americans now know the security of health insurance. This is your progress. It’s because of your hard work and sacrifice that America has come back from crisis faster than almost every other advanced nation on Earth. We remain the safest, strongest bet in the world. Of course, you might not know all that if you only listened to the bluster of political season, when it’s in the interest of some politicians to paint America as dark and depressing as possible. … There’s nothing patriotic about denying the progress you’ve worked so hard to make."
-- President Barack Obama, September 19, 2015.

Comment: In saying that it's "the interest of some politicians to paint America as dark and depressing as possible", Obama sounds like he's accusing his critics (Republicans) of rooting for failure. If Obama is trying to dismiss the criticism on the basis of the motive he says the critics have, then he's also engaging in ad hominem reasoning. Last, Obama suggests his critics are unpatriotic.

It’s true that too many of the poorest of the poor in New Orleans are still slipping through the cracks and have not been properly accounted for when they drop out. Critics like Andrea Gabor in The New York Times are right to ask tough questions about every aspect of the RSD’s efforts. But Gabor, like many other critics, cites the prestigious Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) when it serves her arguments only to try to poke holes in CREDO research confirming huge improvements in inner-city education spearheaded by experienced charter operators. For these critics to call the successes in New Orleans “a myth,” as Gabor does, is preposterous.

“Some people seem to be rooting for us to fail,” says Mary Landrieu, a Democrat who lost her Senate seat last year and now devotes much of her time to pushing education reform in her hometown and beyond. (Her brother, Mitch, is the mayor of New Orleans.)

Those rooting for charters to fail certainly aren’t the African-American parents who in cities across the country enter charter school lotteries in disproportionate numbers.
-- From an article by pundit Jonathan Alter, September 1, 2015, concerning charter schools in New Orleans and the Recovery School District (RSD).

Comment: These are examples of "rooting for failure" rhetoric.

Gerrard obviously intended for this to be a provocative piece, but he doesn’t offer any particular new affirmations of science and he ignores some obvious problems with his argument. For instance, if global warming has the impact he wants it to suggests it could, won’t the United States also have climate change refugees? … Those on the left who make these kind of bizarre assertions are feeding the fears of some, but the doubts of many others.
-- Pundit Ed Rogers, June 29, 2015. Rogers' remarks concern an article by pundit Michael B. Gerrard entitled, “America is the worst polluter in the history of the world. We should let climate change refugees resettle here.”

Comment: In his strikethrough, Rogers seems to suggest that Gerrard wants global warming to have a negative impact, which is demonizing, perhaps even "rooting for failure" rhetoric. Also, Rogers uses "scare tactics" rhetoric.

"With this case behind us, we’re going to keep working to make health care in America even better and more affordable, and to get more people covered. But it is time to stop refighting battles that have been settled again and again. It’s time to move on. Because as Americans, we don’t go backwards, we move forwards. We take care of each other. We root for one another’s success. We strive to do better, to be better, than the generation before us, and we try to build something better for the generation coming behind us. With this behind us, let’s come together and keep building something better right now."
-- President Barack Obama, June 27, 2015, during the weekly presidential address.

Comment: First, this is "rehashing old battles" rhetoric. Why should opponents of the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") stop fighting to reverse a law they disagree with? When Democrat-proposed health care reform (known as "Hillarycare") was blocked in 1994, Democrats didn't consider the battle settled. They kept pushing for reform, and it was passed in 2010. Why should Republicans consider the passage of that reform to "settle" the issue? Second, it sounds like Obama is saying that his opponents are rooting for failure, and that his opponents are somehow not real Americans.

Pundit Glenn Beck worries that some critics of the Republican decision to defund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration will "revel" if a terrorist gets across the border, saying, "they will enjoy a jihadist getting through".
-- Glenn Beck Radio Program, February 9, 2015, during an interview with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE).

Comment: This is "rooting for failure" rhetoric, albeit hypothetical or speculative.

"Now, like every new law, every new product rollout, there are going to be some glitches in the signup process along the way that we will fix. … For example, we found out that there have been times this morning where the site has been running more slowly than it normally will. The reason is because more than one million people visited before 7:00 in the morning. … And we're going to be speeding things up in the next few hours to handle all this demand that exceeds anything that we had expected. Consider that just a couple of weeks ago, Apple rolled out a new mobile operating system. And within days, they found a glitch, so they fixed it. I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads -- or threatening to shut down the company if they didn’t. That’s not how we do things in America. We don’t actively root for failure. We get to work, we make things happen, we make them better, we keep going."
-- President Barack Obama, October 1, 2013.

Comment: Obama is accusing critics of the Affordable Care Act (AKA "Obamacare") – in particular, critics of the associated website,, which had a host of problems on its rollout on October 1, 2013 – of rooting for failure. More, he is suggesting that the critics are somehow not true Americans.


Examples from 2012.

Democratic National Committee chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL): And we need Republicans and Democrats to work together. You know, where is the leadership on the Republican side? You want to talk about sitting on the sidelines? They're the ones that have just been crossing their arms and hoping for failure. I mean, how could -- it's so irresponsible for them to allow the economy to just remain stagnant, you know, so that they can get a political --
Candy Crowley: I think they would disagree.

Wasserman Schultz: -- victory in the election next year.
Crowley: Right. I think they would say they don't want the economy to stay stagnant but they have different ideas.
-- CNN's "State of the Union with Candy Crowley", October 16, 2011.

Comment: Crowley is rightly objecting to Wasserman Schultz's claim that Republicans want the economy to fail, rather that they don't believe that Democratic policies are effective.

"And look, when the economy is tough and people are anxious, I think contributes maybe to a little more polarization. But what I know is that when I leave Washington, and I talk to folks out here. You know, I have had a number of conversations with people who come up and say you know what, I'm a Republican. I don't agree with everything you are doing, but I know you are trying to do your best for the country and I'm rooting for you. I'm praying for you. That kind of attitude that says, we are more concerned about the country winning that we are about winning the next election. If that kind of spirit is infused in Washington, I think we are going to be just fine."
-- President Barack Obama, CNN's "The Situation Room", August 16, 2011.

Comment: Obama is implying that some people are more concerned about winning the next election than about the country winning.

"And I warn them [Republicans], once again, that this country has no place and no patience for those who root for failure".
-- Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), March 5, 2010.

"On every one of these issues my door remains open to good ideas from both parties. I want the Republicans off the sidelines. I want them working with us to solve problems facing working families -- not to score points. I want a partnership. What we can't do, though -- here's what I'm not open to. I don't want gridlock on issue after issue after issue when there's so many urgent problems to solve. And I don't want an attitude, "If Obama loses, then we win." I mean, that can't be a platform. Even if you disagree with me on some specific issues, all of us should be rooting for each other. All of us should be working for America moving forward and solving problems."
-- President Barack Obama, January 28, 2010.

Comment: Republicans aren't rooting for America? Or is it that they just believe that they have different ideas that Obama's about how to help America?


Examples from 2009.


Examples from 2007.

"Regardless of how you voted in the presidential election, would you say you want President Bush to succeed or not?"
-- FOX News/Opinion Dynamics Poll, August 10, 2006.

Comment: Seven percent of Republicans, 34 percent of independents, and 51 percent of Democrats answered "No, do not want him to succeed" to this poll question. Does this mean they didn't want Bush to make the country successful, or did it just mean they didn't want Bush to succeed in implementing his policies, because they believe those policies are bad ones?

"Bill Kristol, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, said Senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) are "crazy” if they believe that Americans don’t want to win in Iraq. Kristol, appearing Wednesday on Fox News Channel, made his comments in response to a press conference called by the Democrats prior to President Bush’s speech Wednesday on the progress in Iraq and the war on terrorism."
-- Newsmax's Carl Limbacher, December 14, 2005.

Comment: Seven percent of Republicans, 34 percent of independents, and 51 percent of Democrats answered "No, do not want him to succeed" to this poll question. Does this mean they didn't want Bush to make the country successful, or did it just mean they didn't want Bush to succeed in implementing his policies, because they believe those policies are bad ones?

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

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

President Obama Chides GOP -- But Not Democratic -- "War" Rhetoric

In his March 6, 2012, press conference, President Barack Obama denounced the GOP presidential candidates for their talk about going to war with Iran over its nuclear program:
Obama: "Now, what’s said on the campaign trail -- those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities. They’re not Commander-in-Chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war. I’m reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle, and the impacts that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy. This is not a game. There’s nothing casual about it. And when I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we’ve been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that’s more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem."

Later, in the same press conference, Obama was asked about whether others were being responsible in their use of war rhetoric:

Jessica Yellin: "Top Democrats have said that Republicans on a similar issue are engaged in a war on women. Some top Republicans say it’s more like Democrats are engaged in a war for the women’s vote. As you talk about loose talk of war in another arena and women are -- this could raise concerns among women, do you agree with the chair of your Democratic National Committee that there is a war on women?" 
Obama: "Here is what I think. Women are going to make up their own mind in this election about who is advancing the issues that they care most deeply about. And one of the things I’ve learned being married to Michelle is I don’t need to tell her what it is that she thinks is important. And there are millions of strong women around the country who are going to make their own determination about a whole range of issues. It’s not going to be narrowly focused just on contraception. It’s not going to be driven by one statement by one radio announcer. It is going to be driven by their view of what’s most likely to make sure they can help support their families, make their mortgage payments; who's got a plan to ensure that middle-class families are secure over the long term; what’s most likely to result in their kids being able to get the education they need to compete. And I believe that Democrats have a better story to tell to women about how we’re going to solidify the middle class and grow this economy, make sure everybody has a fair shot, everybody is doing their fair share, and we got a fair set of rules of the road that everybody has to follow. So I’m not somebody who believes that women are going to be single-issue voters. They never have been. But I do think that we’ve got a strong story to tell when it comes to women." 
Yellin: "Would you prefer this language be changed?" 
Obama: "Jessica, as you know, if I start being in the business of arbitrating -- " 
Yellin: "You talk about civility." 
Obama: "And what I do is I practice it."
I've already discussed how Obama is a poor example when it comes to practicing civility. The above quote from his press conference is further evidence of that, because he ducks Yellin's question completely. Maybe he's right about what issues are going to dominate the upcoming election, but that tells us nothing about whether the "war on women" rhetoric is appropriate.

Even if we assume -- for the sake of argument -- that the policies of Republicans when it comes to contraception, abortion, women's health, etc., are completely wrong, those policies simply don't constitute a war on women. Tanks and artillery aren't being deployed against women, right? As such, the "war on women" rhetoric is overblown and inflammatory.

That's the question Yellin asked Obama, and it's precisely the question Obama avoided answering.

I'm sure Obama believes it's unfair for his opponents to claim he's waging war on business or the private sector, or is waging class warfare. And he's right, it is. But it's also unfair to describe Republicans as waging war on women. Obama had the opportunity to say so, but he passed on it. 
Which, again, is why he's not a very good example to follow when it comes to civil debate.

Rhetoric: "War!"

One of the ways politicians employ violent rhetoric is by saying that there is a "war" going on. They claim that their opponents have declared or are waging a war on something good and decent.

Typically, this is just false. There is no such war going on. But the people who employ this rhetoric seldom admit that they're exaggerating or using it metaphorically. Instead, they want to you feel a sense of urgency and concern as if there actually was a war going on.

But, of course, there isn't.

"I don't care where the judge comes from or where judges come from. I just want to get a fair shake. And we've had some very unfair [judicial] opinions coming down. And you wonder, what's going on? And I will tell you, it's a little disappointing, some of the Republicans – and, in all fairness, they're some of the people that I went through war with – and I won – and there's a lot of, there's a lot of anxiety there, there's a lot of, you know, there's a lot of anger, I guess. Anger. They just can't come back, they can't get over it. So they have to get over it, ideally. As to whether or not they endorse me, it's OK if they don't. But they have to get over it. They shouldn't be so angry for so long."
-- Republican presidential contender Donald Trump, June 7, 2016. Trump was responding to criticism of his demand that U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel recuse himself from a civil case concerning Trump University, given that Curiel was of Mexican heritage, was a member of a Latino lawyers' association, and that Trump had pledged to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border to stop illegal immigration from Mexico.

Comment: Yes, maybe some of the people criticizing Trump for his remarks on Judge Curiel are angry because they lost to Trump in the GOP presidential primary (the "war" Trump refers to). But that doesn't mean their criticism is invalid; to argue that way would be ad hominem reasoning.

"Make no mistake about it, the right wing in this country is continuing its war on women".
-- Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), November 7, 2015.

Comment: This is "war" rhetoric.

KOCH: I would love to have the government stop this corporate welfare. That's what I want. I want the government to let companies – require that companies only profit by helping make other people's lives better.

HAYES: That's Charles Koch expressing his commitment to ending corporate welfare. Do you buy that, Senator?

SANDERS: And "making life for people better" – no doubt. Look, you know, in 1980, Chris, and we don't talk about this enough, David Koch ran for Vice President of the United States on the Libertarian Party ticket. What his agenda was, it was not to cut Social Security or Medicare, but to end Social Security, end Medicare, end Medicaid, end the EPA, end the concept of the Environmental Protection Agency, basically he wanted to eliminate virtually every program developed since FDR designed to help working people and the middle class. That is their agenda. And to tell you the truth, you know 30 years have come and gone, I don't think that agenda has changed at all. What these guys are doing is spending unbelievable sums of money, some $900 million on this campaign cycle, to support right-wing candidates who are going to war, big time, against working families in the middle class. No, I do not think the Koch brothers want to make life better for ordinary people.
-- Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), November 3, 2015, with Chris Hayes of MSNBC, responding to a video clip of activist Charles Koch.

Comment: Sanders is demonizing Koch, saying that Koch doesn't want people's lives to improve. Just because Koch doesn't believe these programs do a good job of helping people doesn't mean he is opposed to making life better for others. Sanders is also using "war" rhetoric.

As the top ranking Democrat on both the Benghazi and Oversight committees in the House of Representatives, I have a front row seat to watch House Republicans push their highest priorities. Right now, the top two goals for Republicans are to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign to become the nation’s first woman president and to attack and defund Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides critical healthcare services to millions of women across the country. … Focusing on issues that make a difference to hundreds of millions of Americans would be much more helpful — and appropriate — than continuing to squander millions of taxpayer dollars on Republican political campaigns to attack the interests and rights of women.
-- Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), September 30, 2015, in a Politico op-ed entitled "The House GOP’s War on Women".

Comment: This is "war" rhetoric.

"It's a war on women's health, it's not about abortion. Planned Parenthood spends 97% of its dollars on non-abortion related services … They serve 2.7 million people in America every year, 500,000 of those happen to be Hispanic. It is a very important healthcare organization, and this attack started from the day Planned Parenthood was founded in 1916, when the founder of Planned Parenthood was arrested for trying to distribute birth control to poor women. So it's a constant battle here. I can't believe in this century we are still battling against women's health."
-- Sen. Barbara Boxer, August 4, 2015.

Comment: First, this is "war" rhetoric. Second, Boxer is demonizing opponents of Planned Parenthood, saying they don't care about abortion, they only want to prevent women from getting health services.

“Think about this war on CO2. If we don’t have CO2 we’re Mars. … CO2 is not a pollutant.”
-- Pundit Mark Levin, July 22, 2015, during the 1st hour of his radio program. Levin was referring to efforts by global warming advocates to lower CO2 levels.

Comment: First, this is "war" rhetoric. Second, Levin is knocking over a straw man. Global warming activists aren't proposing that we get rid of CO2  (carbon dioxide), which of course we need to live. Rather, they propose that we stop raising it to dangerous levels in the atmosphere (i.e., the dose makes the poison), which is different from eliminating it altogether. Levin is distorting their position.

This year is the 10th anniversary of a book called "The Republican War on Science." I could just as easily write a book called "The Democratic War on Science." The conflict conservatives have with science is mostly caused by religion. Some religious conservatives reject evolution, and some oppose stem cell research. But neither belief has a big impact on our day-to-day lives. … By contrast, the left's bad ideas about science do more harm. Many on the left -- including a few of my fellow libertarians -- are paranoid about genetically modified organisms. … The left's anti-science fears also prevent us from building new nuclear reactors, especially after Fukushima and Chernobyl.
-- Pundit John Stossel, June 17, 2015.

Comment: This is "anti-science" rhetoric, and "war" rhetoric. Stossel seems to be arguing that, if this sort of rhetoric is fair to use against conservatives, then it's hypocritical not to use it on liberals and progressives, too. I'm not sure if he's advocating the rhetoric as a means of retaliating in kind.

"Here in Texas, former Governor Rick Perry signed a law that a federal court said was actually written with the purpose of discriminating against minority voters. He applauded when the Voting Rights Act was gutted, and said the lost protections were “outdated and unnecessary.” But Governor Perry is hardly alone in his crusade against voting rights. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker cut back early voting and signed legislation that would make it harder for college students to vote. In New Jersey, Governor Christie vetoed legislation to extend early voting. And in Florida, when Jeb Bush was governor, state authorities conducted a deeply flawed purge of voters before the presidential election in 2000. Thankfully in 2004 a plan to purge even more voters was headed off. So today, Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting. What part of democracy are they afraid of? I believe every citizen has the right to vote. And I believe we should do everything we can to make it easier for every citizen to vote. I call on Republicans at all levels of government with all manner of ambition to stop fear mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they’re so scared of letting citizens have their say. Yes, this is about democracy. But it’s also about dignity. About the ability to stand up and say, yes, I am a citizen. I am an American. My voice counts. And no matter where you come from or what you look like or how much money you have, that means something. In fact, it means a lot."
-- Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, June 4, 2015.

Comment: "Crusade" is a form of "war" rhetoric, though I think it's generally understood to be metaphorical. More worrying is that she is demonizing Republicans, accusing them of wanting to take people's right to vote away. She is also using "fear-mongering" rhetoric.

"The left is at war with America."
-- Pundit Mark Levin, May 29, 2015, 3rd hour of his radio show.

Comment: This is "war" rhetoric.

A lifelong environmentalist, I opposed genetically modified foods in the past. Fifteen years ago, I even participated in vandalizing field trials in Britain. Then I changed my mind. After writing two books on the science of climate change, I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s. … The environmental movement’s war against genetic engineering has led to a deepening rift with the scientific community.
-- Pundit Mark Lynas, April 24, 2015.

Comment: This is caricaturing people who disagree with the safety of genetically modified foods (GMOs) by saying they are against science. Also, this is "war" rhetoric.


Examples from 2014.


Examples from 2012.


Examples from 2011.

The Republican War on Science
-- The title of a book written by pundit Chris Mooney, released August 30, 2005.

Comment: This is both "war" rhetoric and demonizing people as being anti-science.

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rush Limbaugh's Apology Demonizes Democrats

Radio pundit Rush Limbaugh recently apologized for calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute". Apologizing was certainly the right thing for Limbaugh to do, because what he said about Fluke was derisive, false, and unacceptable.

But notice how Limbaugh, in apologizing, describes the nature of his misbehavior:
"I want to explain why I apologized to Sandra Fluke in the statement that was released on Saturday. … I don't expect -- and I know you don't, either -- morality or intellectual honesty from the left. They've demonstrated over and over a willingness to say or do anything to advance their agenda. It's what they do. It's what we fight against here every day. But this is the mistake I made. In fighting them on this issue last week, I became like them. Against my own instincts, against my own knowledge, against everything I know to be right and wrong I descended to their level when I used those two words to describe Sandra Fluke. That was my error. I became like them, and I feel very badly about that. … The apology to her over the weekend was sincere. It was simply for using inappropriate words in a way I never do, and in so doing, I became like the people we oppose. I ended up descending to their level. It's important not to be like them, ever, particularly in fighting them. The old saw, you never descend to the level of your opponent or they win. That was my error last week. … I acted too much like the leftists who despise me. I descended to their level, using names and exaggerations to describe Sandra Fluke. It's what we have come to know and expect of them, but it's way beneath me. And it's way beneath you. It was wrong, and that's why I've apologized, 'cause I succumbed. I descended to their level. Don't be mad at them or mad at her. Everybody here was being true to their nature except me. I'm the one who had the failing on this, and for that I genuinely apologized for using those words to describe Ms. Fluke."

His failing, Limbaugh says, was that he behaved like Democrats, liberals, progressives, and leftists. Because they -- and not Republicans, conservatives, and right-wingers -- are the ones who are truly inclined to resort to name-calling, caricature, and demonizing.

But this itself is just more name-calling, caricature, and demonizing. People often like to say that it's really only the other party than engages in name-calling and invective. In truth, there is so much name-calling in American politics that -- practically speaking -- it's impossible to comprehensively count it all up and come to a definitive conclusion about which side is worse, Republicans or Democrats.

So, for Limbaugh to act like incivility is really only applicable to Democrats, or to depict himself as someone who doesn't resort to name-calling and distortion, is simply false. Both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, left-wingers and right-wingers produce a lot of invective, and Limbaugh is no exception. Anyone who wants to assert that one side does it more than the other should provide a rigorous empirical survey to prove their claim.

Limbaugh's apology reminds me of a speech given by Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN), in which he said Republicans and conservatives should avoid the "venomous, petty, often ad hominem political discourse of the day", in particular because Democrats are "better at nastiness than we will ever be. It comes naturally. Power to them is everything, so there's nothing they won't say to get it."

Like Limbaugh, Daniels was demonizing Democrats by describing them as the ones more likely to resort to demonization. (As is typical, Daniels offered no evidence.) He was essentially saying, "Those S.O.B.s aren't civil, like we are."

In calling Fluke names, Limbaugh wasn't behaving like "the left"; he was behaving a lot of people in politics, Republican and Democrat. He was calling people names while at the same time pretending he doesn't routinely do the same thing.

President Obama is Not a Good Example of Civility

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for the cause of civil debate is the lack of understanding about what counts as civility and incivility.

Politicians and pundits frequently advocate civility only in the abstract, which is sort of like telling your kids "be nice" without informing them that pulling each others hair counts as a failure to be nice. Our leaders tend not to get into specifics about who is violating the standards of civil debate unless it involves specifically criticizing their opponents. When it comes to civility, they're not inclined to point out their own failures, or the failures of their allies.

Which brings us to President Barack Obama's press conference today (March 6, 2012) in which he commented on the recent episode involving radio pundit Rush Limbaugh and Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke. (Limbaugh called Fluke "slut" and "prostitute".)

Responding to questions from Aamer Madhani and Jessica Yellin, Obama said:
OBAMA: "I don't know what's in Rush Limbaugh's heart, so I'm not going to comment on the sincerity of his apology. What I can comment on is the fact that all decent folks can agree that the remarks that were made don't have any place in the public discourse. … I thought about Malia and Sasha [Obama's daughters] … I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way … we want to send a message to all our young people that being part of a democracy involves argument and disagreements and debate, and we want you to be engaged, and there's a way to do it that doesn't involve you being demeaned and insulted, particularly when you’re a private citizen. …"
YELLIN: "Top Democrats have said that Republicans on a similar issue are engaged in a war on women. … Would you prefer this language be changed?"
OBAMA: "Jessica, as you know, if I start being in the business of arbitrating -- "

YELLIN: "You talk about civility."

OBAMA: "And what I do is I practice it. And so I’m going to try to lead by example in this situation, as opposed to commenting on every single comment that’s made by either politicians or pundits. I would be very busy. I would not have time to do my job. That’s your job, to comment on what's said by politicians and pundits."
While it's certainly true that Obama preaches civility, he does not do a very good job of practicing it, and he is not a good example of civility. Rather, he sets the self-serving example of civility that we have far too much of.

I say this on the basis of the following:


First, as several people have already noted, while Obama called Fluke to offer her moral support, he's never called any Republican women -- such as Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN) -- who have been victims of similar name-calling at the hands of liberal commentators such as Bill Maher.

Obama says he doesn't have time to time to "arbitrate" and do the job of the media when it comes to weighing in on specific cases of incivility. Yet he found the time to do precisely that in the Limbaugh-Fluke incident. Why not with others?

When liberal commentator Ed Schultz called conservative radio pundit Laura Ingraham a "right-wing slut", why didn't Obama call Ingraham or use that incident as an occasion to "send a message to all our young people" about democracy and civility?

When union leader James "Jimmy" Hoffa, Jr. made his infamous "son of a bitches" remark about the Tea Party movement last Labor Day, Obama did not denounce it as "remarks that don't have any place in the public discourse". In fact, his communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, specifically denied that the President had any responsibility to behave as the "speech police" and condemn Hoffa's words.

And then, less than a week later, Obama's presidential campaign came out with, a website dedicated to policing what Republicans say about Obama. Apparently, despite his busy job, he can find the time to delegate others to comment on the invective of his opponents (but somehow not his allies).

Of course no president can spend their time policing the speech of the political arena. But, if they're going to do it from time to time -- as Obama does -- they should be even-handed. There's nothing admirable about denouncing the incivility of your opponents while casting a blind eye to the incivility of your allies. That sort of self-serving commitment to civility politicians is all too common, and Obama has steadfastly not risen above it.


Not only has Obama failed to denounce his own side's incivility, he's arguably rewarded it.

Who did he appoint to be chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC)? Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), a politician who routinely resorts to name-calling and demonizing. She has accused Republicans of rooting for failure, of wanting to reinstate Jim Crow laws, of wanting to deny seniors affordable medical care and instead set a "death trap" for them, of being "anti-women", and of "waging war on the unemployed". None of this has been denounced by Obama or resulted in a phone call to the victims.


Last, but not least, Obama himself has routinely resorted to name-calling and demonized and/or misrepresented his opponents. Just to note a few examples:

1. He has frequently -- July 2005, June 2005, August 2006, March 2007 -- described Republicans as Social Darwinists. Republicans are no more Social Darwinists who oppose helping people than Democrats are communists who oppose wealth and productive labor. Obama denounces the latter caricature, but indulges in the former.

2. Obama prominently summarized the difference between Democrats and Republicans as being that Democrats, unlike Republicans:
"have a sense of neighborliness and a sense of community, and we are willing to look out for one another and help people who are vulnerable and help people who are down on their luck and give them a pathway to success and give them a ladder into the middle class."
Saying that Republicans don't have a sense of neighborliness and community, etc., is just another derisive caricature.

3. Obama misrepresented Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as being in support of another 100 years of war in Iraq, when McCain clearly stated that what he supported was a peacetime deployment in Iraq, akin to how U.S. troops have been in South Korea or Japan for decades without seeing combat.

4. Obama misrepresented the GOP presidential candidates as opposing aid to Israel, when what they clearly said was that they wouldn't hand out foreign aid on an automatic, baseline-determined manner. They support aid to Israel, just not the budget mechanism that bases one year's funding on the amount of funding received the prior year.


Obama has a reputation of being above the political fray -- legal commentator Philip K. Howard recently called him "a model of civility" -- but it's a reputation he doesn't deserve. It's a reputation that the media has left intact, despite the obvious challenges to it.

Rather, Obama is a fairly typical politician when it comes to civility. He praises civil debate in the abstract, he denounces specific instances of his opponents being uncivil, but he doesn't denounce his allies for their specific acts of incivility and he frequently (and unapologetically) resorts to name-calling himself.

I don't know what's in Obama's heart any more than Obama knows what's in Limbaugh's heart. I don't know if he's intentionally setting a bad example and doesn't care, or if he simply doesn't realize that he routinely violates the standards of civil debate. (If I had to bet, I'd say the latter.)

But, whatever the explanation, the fact is that he doesn't practice what he preaches. Those who don't catch on to his inconsistency wind up following a bad example, mistakenly thinking that calling Republicans "Social Darwinists" is compatible with civility. Those who do catch the hypocrisy -- for instance, Republicans and conservatives -- take it as yet another act of antagonism: "Here's this guy, telling me to be civil and watch my words, while he says I have no sense of community and want another 100 years of war!" Such hypocrisy inspires cynicism and resentment, not civility.

When it comes to civility, we desperately need good examples. But President Obama isn't one of them. And the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can maybe start creating some genuinely good ones, because there are currently precious few of them in American politics.