Thursday, September 6, 2012

Civility Watchdog: President Bill Clinton's Address to Democratic National Convention

On September 5, 2012, former President Bill Clinton addressed the Democratic National Convention. Below are some of the highlights concerning civil, productive debate:
"I want a man who believes with no doubt that we can build a new American dream economy, driven by innovation and creativity, by education and, yes, by cooperation."
Comment: This is a platitude. We all want a president who will improve the economy via innovation, creativity, education and cooperation. The question is, what policies and what actions does that involve? That's where Democrats and Republicans disagree.

"Now, folks, in Tampa a few days ago, we heard a lot of talk all about how the president and the Democrats don’t really believe in free enterprise and individual initiative, how we want everybody to be dependent on the government, how bad we are for the economy. This Republican narrative, this alternative universe says that every one of us in this room who amounts to anything, we’re all completely self-made. … We Democrats, we think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it, with a relentless focus on the future, with business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. You see, we believe that "We’re all in this together" is a far better philosophy than "You’re on your own.""
Comment: Clinton is right that -- at their convention in Tampa, FL -- Republicans frequently caricatured Democrats as being opposed to free enterprise and individual initiative and wanting to make people dependent on government. But it's also a caricature for Clinton to say that Republicans believe that people are entirely self-made, that they never received any help to get them where they are. Rather, Democrats and Republicans both believe that individual effort and outside assistance play a role in our success, but the disagree with how much of a role they each play, and how much of a role government does and should play. It's a caricature to say that the Republican philosophy is "you're on your own", just as it would be a caricature to say that the Democratic philosophy is "you don't have to work or pay taxes, government will pay your bills for you". Responding to name-calling with more name-calling isn't a good way to uphold civility.

"You see, we believe that "We’re all in this together" is a far better philosophy than "You’re on your own." … We know that investments in education and infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase growth. They increase good jobs, and they create new wealth for all the rest of us."
Comment: These are also platitudes. Everyone believes that we're all in this together, but we disagree about the details of our obligations: such as our obligations to take care of others, to be fair, and to be self-sufficient (so that we are not an unnecessary burden on others). And we all think we should invest in education and infrastructure, etc. The question is, what are good ways of investing in these things, so that we avoid spending money wastefully on them? That's where Republicans and Democrats disagree.

"So who’s right? Well, since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private- sector jobs. So what’s the job score? Republicans: twenty-four million. Democrats: forty-two. … Now, people ask me all the time how we got four surplus budgets in a row. What new ideas did we bring to Washington? I always give a one-word answer: arithmetic."
Comment: This is faulty reasoning, of the "false causation" variety. Just because job growth was better while Democrats were president doesn't mean job growth was better because Democrats were president. Another problem with this argument is that not all Democratic presidents enact the same economic policies (just like not all Republican presidents enact the same economic policies). Last, but not least, presidents don't control economic policy by themselves. On any number of economic issues -- such as federal taxation and spending -- they have to collaborate with Congress, and Congress is often not of the same party as the president. Clinton, for instance, was president for eight years, six of which had Republicans in control of Congress. Should Democrats get praise or blame for the economic news during those six years, since Clinton was a Democratic president, or should Republicans get praise or blame for the economic news during those six years, since they controlled Congress? Do Republicans get credit for "arithmetic"? (The same mistake was made in a chart about presidents and debt not long ago.) In summary, Clinton's argument makes only half the correlation between parties and job growth, and, in any event, correlation doesn't imply causation.

"Now, there’s something I’ve noticed lately. You probably have, too. And it’s this. Maybe just because I grew up in a different time, but though I often disagree with Republicans, I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president and a lot of other Democrats. … And every one of us -- every one of us and every one of them, we’re compelled to spend our fleeting lives between those two extremes, knowing we’re never going to be right all the time, and hopefully we’re right more than twice a day. Unfortunately, the faction that now dominates the Republican Party doesn’t see it that way. They think government is always the enemy, they’re always right, and compromise is weakness."
Comment: This is the "only my opponent" caricature. Both Republicans and Democrats routinely resort to name-calling and say hateful things about their opponents. And each side routinely complains that they have been too accommodating to the other party and not tough enough with them, and that the other party never admits its faults. There is so much invective coming from each party that it is, in practical terms, impossible to figure out which party does it more.

"And here’s what I want the people at home to think about. When times are tough and people are frustrated and angry and hurting and uncertain, the politics of constant conflict may be good, but what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world. What works in the real world is cooperation."
Comment: This is "unify the country" rhetoric. How are we supposed to transcend our divisions? What sorts of behavior will bring that about? As often as people say they want to unify, they frequently keep resorting to name-calling and caricature, which tends to thwart efforts at unification, right?

"Because -- because in order to look like an acceptable, reasonable, moderate alternative to President Obama, they just didn’t say very much about the ideas they’ve offered over the last two years. They couldn’t, because they want to go back to the same, old policies that got us in trouble in the first place."
Comment: This is "failed policies" rhetoric.

"But I am telling you, the claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform’s work requirement is just not true. But they keep on running ads claiming it. You want to know why? Their campaign pollster said, “We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” Now, finally I can say: That is true. I -- I -- I couldn’t have said it better myself."
Comment: First, this is the "big lie" caricature, claiming that your opponent "doesn't care about the truth". Second, the pollster Clinton refers to is Neil Newhouse, who actually said, "These fact-checkers come to those ads with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs. We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers." Newhouse may have been guilty of ad hominem reasoning in this comment, but he wasn't saying that facts don't matter. As such, Clinton is misrepresenting what Newhouse said. If the distortion of Obama's position on welfare reform is proof that Republicans don't care at all about truth, do distortions coming from Democrats prove that they don't care at all about truth?

"If you want -- if you want America -- if you want every American to vote and you think it is wrong to change voting procedures just -- just to reduce the turnout of younger, poorer, minority, and disabled voters, you should support Barack Obama."
Comment: Claiming that Republicans support voter ID laws so that they can disenfranchise minorities and other groups that support Democrats is demonizing. It's just as much of a derisive caricature as when Republicans say that Democrats oppose voter ID laws because they want fraudulent voters to help them win elections.

"Don’t you ever forget, when you hear them talking about this, that Republican economic policies quadrupled the national debt before I took office, in the 12 years before I took office, and doubled the debt in the eight years after I left, because it defied arithmetic. It was a highly inconvenient thing for them in our debates that I was just a country boy from Arkansas and I came from a place where people still thought two and two was four."
Comment: This is a derisive caricature, of the "stupid" variety, implying that Republicans don't accept basic math.

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