Saturday, September 15, 2012

Civility Watchdog: Rep. Paul Ryan's Address to Values Voter Summit

On September 14, 2012, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) addressed the Values Voter Summit. Below are some of the highlights concerning civil, productive debate:
"[Lately President Barack Obama has] been trying out a new tactic. It’s a classic Barack Obama straw man: If anyone dares to point out the facts of his record, why then, they’re just being negative and pessimistic about the country. The new straw man is people hoping for the decline of America. … I want my children to make their own choices, to define happiness for themselves, and to use the gifts that God gave them and live their lives in freedom. Say things like this, and our opponents will quickly accuse you of being, quote, “anti-government.” President Obama frames the debate this way because, here again, it’s the only kind of debate he can win – against straw-man arguments. No politician is more skilled at striking heroic poses against imaginary adversaries. Nobody is better at rebuking nonexistent opinions. Barack Obama does this all the time, and in this campaign we are calling him on it."
Comment: It's true that Republicans are sometimes accused of rooting for failure (though it's also true that some Republicans have made the same accusation about Democrats). And it's true that Obama does use straw men (i.e., caricatures and name-calling) against his opponents (though, once again, so do Republicans). Ryan, in other words, is using the "only my opponent" caricature against Obama (though it's true that Obama uses this against Republicans, too!). The "classic tactic" really on display here is to be outraged at misbehavior when your opponent does it, while giving yourself and your own side a free pass for doing the exact same thing.

"[President Barack Obama] treats private enterprise as little more than a revenue source for government. He views government as the redistributor and allocator of opportunity."
Comment: Isn't this a straw man? A caricature?

"Finally, when he tries to make big government sound reasonable and inclusive, President Obama likes to say, “We’re all in this together.” And here, too, he has another handy straw man. Anyone who questions the wisdom of his policies must be lacking in compassion. Who else would question him but those mean people who think that everybody has to go it alone and fend for themselves. “We’re all in this together” -- it has a nice ring. For everyone who loves this country, it is not only true but obvious. Yet how hollow it sounds coming from a politician who has never once lifted a hand to defend the most helpless and innocent of all human beings, the child waiting to be born. Giving up any further pretense of moderation on this issue, and in complete disregard of millions of pro-life Democrats, President Obama has chosen to pander to the most extreme elements of his party."
Comment: Again, it's true that Obama frequently caricatures Republicans as having no compassion or being unwilling to help others -- for instance, by calling them "Social Darwinists" -- but it's also a caricature to say that people who aren't pro-life when it comes to abortion are hypocrites when they say "we're all in this together". Abortion is a complicated moral dilemma involving moral standing and the extent of our duty to help others. The fact that someone supports the right to abortion doesn't mean they have no concern for others. A comparable distortion from the pro-choice side is to say that it's hypocritical for people who oppose abortion to also say they support women's rights. Ryan wouldn't accept that caricature, I'm sure, so he shouldn't be content to caricature others. This is also an example of "extremists" rhetoric.

"[GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is] solid and trustworthy, faithful and honorable. Not only a defender of marriage, he offers an example of marriage at its best."
Comment: Is the fact that someone has a good marriage a reason in favor of voting for them? Is somebody who has had (or is having) a divorce somehow a bad candidate for office? Is "vote for me because I have a happy family and marriage" (or something along those lines) a good argument? This gets into the issue of the relationship between character and politics.

"We know what we are up against. We know how desperate our opponents are to cling to power. But we are ready, and I hope you are too, because I know that we can do this. Whatever your political party, let’s come together for the sake of our country. Let’s put these divisive years behind us. Let’s give this effort everything we have. Let’s get this done, and elect Mitt Romney the next president of the United States."
Comment: It sounds like Ryan is implying that Democrats "will do anything to win". He is also using "unify the country" rhetoric without specifying what Obama has done to be divisive and what would be involved in uniting. For instance, if I don't accept the policies supported by Romney and Ryan, am I guilty of not "coming together for the sake of our country"?

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