Saturday, October 27, 2012

Civility Watchdog: October 22nd Presidential Debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in Boca Raton, FL

Following are excerpts from the presidential debate [NPR Transcript, NYTimes Transcript, RCP Video] between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) in Boca Raton, FL on October 22, 2012, hosted and moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS:
ROMNEY: [T]he key that we're going to have to pursue is a -- is a pathway to -- to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own. We don't want another Iraq. We don't want another Afghanistan.
Comment: Romney is indulging in "extremism" rhetoric. What, in particular, does Romney believe that the Muslim world should reject?

OBAMA: Governor Romney, I'm glad that you recognize that al-Qaida's a threat because a few months ago when you were asked, what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia -- not al-Qaida, you said Russia.
Comment: Obama is describing Romney's remarks as contradictory when they aren't. There's nothing inconsistent about saying that al-Qaeda is a threat while also saying that Russia is the biggest threat. Romney may be incorrect about which threat is bigger, but his statements aren't contradictory, as Obama asserts.

OBAMA: I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong.
Comment: Really? Every opinion Romney has offered on foreign policy has been wrong? Even on policies where he has agreed with Obama? This is an exaggeration.

ROMNEY: [A]ttacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we're going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East and take advantage of the opportunity there and stem the tide of this violence. … Again, attacking me is not talking about an agenda for getting more trade and opening up more jobs in this country.
Comment: This is a "negative politics" accusation. There's nothing wrong or unproductive -- in principle, at least -- about Obama criticizing Romney's positions (and vice versa). In fact, that's the point of debate, to show that your positions have fewer flaws than your opponent's positions. If Obama is making unfair criticisms -- employing faulty reasoning or distortions -- then that's another matter, and Romney should protest. But he can't simply complain that it's unfair for Obama to "attack" his positions.

ROMNEY: Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea. It's the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel.
Comment: Strictly speaking, this is false. Iran borders the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Given his mention of Lebanon, Romney clearly meant that Syria is Iran's route to the Mediterranean Sea, which is true. Romney's opponents, though, probably won't make this charitable interpretation.

ROMNEY: [O]ur Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. We're headed down to the -- to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration.

OBAMA: [Y]ou mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's -- it's what are our capabilities.
Comment: Obama is correct that military capability isn't simply dependent on the number of ships, it's also dependent on the quality and type of ships. But he could have made this point without derisively suggesting that Romney is ignorant of the fact that we now have things like aircraft carriers and submarines. Plus, it's not necessarily playing "a game of Battleship" to count ships, as there is a minimum number of ships needed in order to perform certain functions, which is what the Navy assessment was stating.

OBAMA: The disagreement I have with Governor Romney is that during the course of this campaign he's often talked as if we should take premature military action. I think that would be a mistake because when I've sent young men and women into harm's way, I always understand that that is the last resort, not the first resort.
Comment: Obama is misrepresenting Romney's position on military action. Perhaps Romney is willing to resort to military action sooner than Obama is, but Obama represents Romney as believing that military action should be the first resort. Where has Romney said that?

ROMNEY: And then the president began what I've called an apology tour of going to -- to various nations in the Middle East and -- and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness.

OBAMA: Bob, let me just respond. Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign, and every fact-checker and every reporter who's looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.

ROMNEY: Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to -- to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to -- to Turkey and Iraq. And -- and by way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations and on Arabic TV you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.
Comment: This exchange -- regarding the claim that Obama went on an "apology tour" -- deserves much more detailed treatment. Here, suffice to say that most of the problem comes down to an ambiguity regarding what constitutes an apology, the result being that it's vague as to whether Obama really apologized for anything.

SCHIEFFER: What if -- what if the prime minister of Israel called you on the phone and said: Our bombers are on the way. We're going to bomb Iran. What do you say?
ROMNEY: Bob, let's not go into hypotheticals of that nature. Our relationship with Israel, my relationship with the prime minister of Israel is such that we would not get a call saying our bombers are on the way or their fighters are on the way. This is the kind of thing that would have been discussed and thoroughly evaluated well before that kind of action.
Comment: Romney is refusing to answer a hypothetical question, here. However, he gives a reason why: because the premise of the hypothetical -- that Israel would send bombers to Iran and then alert the United States after the fact, not beforehand -- is implausible. We could argue about whether it really is implausible, but I don't think this is an unfair evasion. Romney wasn't rejecting all hypothetical questions, he gave a plausible reason for rejecting a particular hypothetical.

OBAMA: You know, when I came into office, we were still bogged down in Iraq, and Afghanistan had been drifting for a decade. We ended the war in Iraq, refocused our attention on Afghanistan. And we did deliver a surge of troops. That was facilitated in part because we had ended the war in Iraq.
Comment: It's not clear what Obama means by "bogged down" in Iraq. By December 2008 and January 2009 (the latter month is when Obama was inaugurated into office), Iraqi civilian deaths, US and Iraqi military deaths were among the lowest they had been since the invasion in 2003. Moreover, President George W. Bush by then had signed a status of forces agreement (SOFA) which set a 2011 withdrawal date for US forces from Iraq. In 2011, the Obama administration attempted to extend the presence of US forces in Iraq beyond the SOFA, but could not reach an agreement on a new SOFA, so US forces withdrew as planned. Arguably, Obama is distorting the situation to make his contributing to winding down the Iraq War greater than it really was.

ROMNEY: The secretary of defense called these trillion dollars of cuts to our military devastating. It's not my term. It's the president's own secretary of defense called them devastating.
Comment: Romney is employing faulty "even my opponent agrees" reasoning. He's arguing that, since Obama's own secretary of defense (Leon Panetta, a Democrat) agrees that the cuts to the military are a bad idea, there must be true. But, just because people who typically disagree on things find themselves in agreement on a particular topic doesn't guarantee that their correct.

OBAMA: Well, Governor Romney's right. You are familiar with jobs being shipped overseas, because you invested in companies that were shipping jobs overseas. And, you know, that's your right. I mean, that's how our free market works. But I've made a different bet on American workers. You know, if we had taken your advice, Governor Romney, about our auto industry, we'd be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China.
Comment: First, Obama is again making a flawed argument about outsourcing: just because Romney outsourced jobs while a member of Bain Capital doesn't mean he'll do that as president, any more than Obama as president organized protests just like he did when he worked as a community organizer. Second, Obama is again questioning the patriotism of those who opposed the bailouts of GM and Chrysler by saying that he was betting on American workers (the implication being that those who opposed the bailouts were betting against American workers). Lastly, even if GM and Chrysler were to go out of business, there would still have been a US auto industry, because Ford, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and other car companies would still have been operating car factories in the US and hiring US auto workers. To say we'd be buying (presumably, all or the bulk of our) cars from China is an exaggeration.

ROMNEY: America's going to come back. And for that to happen, we're going to have to have a president who can work across the aisle. I was in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat. I learned how to get along on the other side of the aisle. We've got to do that in Washington. Washington is broken. I know what it takes to get this country back. And we'll work with good Democrats and good Republicans to do that.
Comment: Romney is indulging in "bipartisan" rhetoric, here, but not in the sense of arguing that bipartisan = good. Rather, he's making the claim that it's difficult to get anything done without bipartisan cooperation, therefore having a record of bipartisanship is a virtue. However, Romney doesn't make any mention of rebuking incivility -- in particular, from his own party and his own campaign -- which would probably be one of the most effective ways to encourage bipartisan behavior.

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