Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Rhetoric: "Talking Points"

Sometimes politicians deride their opponents by mentioning how those opponents aren't speaking in their own words.

For instance, they say that their opponent is repeating "talking points", or reading from a teleprompter, or parroting what's been given to them by speechwriters, etc.

But why is that important? Just because words are recited or written by someone else doesn't mean that what's said is false or irrelevant. And that's what's important in civil, productive debate: truth and relevance.

Consider: sometimes, when we have a test in school, we cram and rehearse a large list of facts so that we can refer to them and answer the test questions correctly. What's wrong with that, so long as the things that we've memorized are accurate? Maybe we're memorizing information compiled by someone else, but if it's factual and relevant to the test, isn't it a good thing that we did so?

Maybe I am repeating talking points when I make a speech. But is what I'm saying true, and is it meaningful? That's what matters.

"The truth of the matter is the individuals who spend their time talking about radical Islamic terrorism are individuals like Republicans in the Senate who voted against legislation that would prevent those individuals from being able to buy a gun. And those are individuals who not actually put forward their own strategy for keeping the country safe. Using the term "radical Islamic extremism" is not a counterterrorism policy. It is a political talking point plain and simple. And what the president of the United States has done has put forward a comprehensive strategy to squeeze the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to inhibit their ability to recruit and radicalize people around the globe."
-- White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, June 21, 2016.

Comment: First of all, is it true that everyone who uses the term "radical Islamic terrorism" is somehow in league with Senate Republicans? And, even if they are, so what? That doesn't prove anything about whether use of the term is appropriate. Second, this is "talking points" rhetoric. Telling us that some article of rhetoric is a talking point tells us nothing about whether the rhetoric is relevant and true. Earnest's attempt to dismiss the criticism by using the term "talking point" accomplishes nothing.

"I think I have to be who I am. I don't want to be a phony, like a Hillary Clinton, where she reads stuff that's written up by high-priced talent. I don't want to be that."
-- Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, June 20, 2016, referring to Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Comment: This is "talking points" rhetoric. Why should it matter if Clinton's speeches are written by others? That doesn't mean she has no input on the speeches or disagrees with the points made in them.

"For a while now, the main contribution of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle – have made in the fight against ISIL, is to criticize this administration and me for not using the phrase “radical Islam”. That’s the key, they tell us. We can’t beat ISIL unless we call them “radical Islamists”. What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is, “none of the above”. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction. Since before I was President, I’ve been clear about how extremist groups have perverted Islam to justify terrorism. As President I have repeatedly called on our Muslim friends and allies at home and around the world to work with us to reject this twisted interpretation of one of the world’s great religions. There’s not been a moment in my seven-and-a-half years as President where we have not been able to pursue a strategy because we didn’t use the label “radical Islam”. Not once has an advisor of mine said, “Man, if we really used that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around.” Not once. … So there’s no magic to the phrase “radical Islam”. It’s a political talking point. It’s not a strategy. And the reason I am careful about how I describe this threat has nothing to do with political correctness, and everything to do with actually defeating extremism. Groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or between Islam and the West. They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions. They want us to validate them, by implying that they speak for those billion-plus people, that they speak for Islam. That’s their propaganda, that’s how they recruit? And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion, then we are doing the terrorists work for them. Up until this point this argument about labels has mostly just been partisan rhetoric. Sadly, we’ve all become accustomed to that kind of partisanship even when it involves the fight against these extremist groups. And that kind of yapping has not prevented folks across government from doing their jobs, from sacrifice and working really hard to protect the American people. But we are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mindset and this kind of thinking can be. We’re starting to see where this kind of rhetoric and loose talk and sloppiness about who exactly we’re fighting, where this can lead us. We now have proposals from the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States to bar all Muslims from emigrating to America. You hear language that singles out immigrants and suggests entire religious communities are complicit in violence. Where does this stop? … Do Republican officials actually agree with this? Because that’s not the America we want. … We’ve gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear and we came to regret it. We’ve seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens, and it has been a shameful part of our history."
-- President Barack Obama, June 14, 2016, referring to (among other people) Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Comment: There is a lot going on here, including "distractions", "talking points", "appealing to fear" and "Americans want" rhetoric. But the bigger issue is distortion. It's not clear who has ever said that using the term "radical Islam" is a necessary or a sufficient condition for defeating ISIS (i.e., that we can't defeat ISIS without using that term, or that using the term is all we need – a "silver bullet" – to defeat ISIS). Maybe some people have taken one or both of these positions – though, has it been their "main" contribution to the issue? – but they certainly haven't been adopted by Republicans in general. Obama needs to name who has advocated these positions, and when and where did so; otherwise it seems like he's knocking over a straw man (a position no one holds). More, if there is no "magic" in using the term "radical Islam", then why avoid it? Obama says that we shouldn't brand all Muslims as terrorists or radicals – and he's correct – but it's not at all clear that using the term does that. Lots of people refer to "Islamic terrorism" while at the same time acknowledging that not all terrorism is done by Muslims and that the vast majority of Muslims aren't terrorists. As I've argued before, you can call someone a "white supremacist" without saying all whites are supremacists, just like you can say Josef Stalin was an "violent socialist" without saying all socialists are violent. Why doesn't the same apply to "radical Islam"? If we support all of Obama's policies and actions on terrorism, but also use the term "Islamic terrorism", are we suddenly validating terrorists and helping them recruit members? Does the term have that much "magic"?

"They're just words. She reads off a teleprompter. You notice, she's reading off a teleprompter. She always does. She really doesn't have her own words."
-- Republican presidential contender Donald Trump, May 22, 2016, responding to criticism of him made by Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Comment: Trump is accusing Clinton of using talking points. It would be ad hominem reasoning, if he's trying to say Clinton's criticisms are false because they are read from a script.

Of course, Republicans have known for a long time that Hillary Clinton is an unusually strong candidate, and this terrifies them. So they have seized on talking points like Benghazi (for which she bears little or no responsibility) and her email scandal.
-- Pundit Jay Parini, March 21, 2016, referring to Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Comment: First, this is "talking points" rhetoric. There's nothing inherently wrong with people using talking points (assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is what Republicans are doing). What matters is whether the talking points are true and relevant. Second, Parini is saying the Republicans have political motives for criticizing Clinton on Benghazi and her email server. Even that's true, it tells us nothing about whether or not those criticisms are true and relevant. To dismiss the criticisms because of political motives is flawed; it's ad hominem reasoning. Should we dismiss Clinton's defense against criticism because she has political motives to defend herself? No, because that would likewise be ad hominem.

"On the Democratic side, we agree on a number of things. But I don't think we can answer that question by re-fighting battles from 20 years ago," Clinton said in a nod to the fact she backed the North American Free Trade Agreement, a trade deal that Sanders has cited to attack the former first lady.

Clinton added, "Anyone running for president owes it to you to come up with real ideas, not an ideology, not an old set of talking points, but a credible strategy designed for the world we live in now. And that is exactly what I am here today to do."
-- Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, March 4, 2016, as related in a story by Dan Merica of CNN.

Comment: This is "rehashing old debates", "talking points", and "ideologue" rhetoric. If people disagree with the North American Free Trade Agreement, why can't they criticize Clinton for supporting it? Why should such criticism be dismissed as talking points or ideology?

LIMBAUGH: Let's go to the audio sound bites. I think maybe I can give you an idea of what I'm talking about. This is a montage of a bunch of analysts from Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, on Rubio somehow squandering whatever gravitas that he had going into the debate Saturday night.

GABE GUTIERREZ: Will Marco Rubio be painted now, forever, as a robotic candidate?

MARK HALPERIN: A robotic quality.

ANA MARIE COX: He's already been portrayed by a lot of us as a fairly robotic candidate.

ANA NAVARRO: It was like when a robot gets water poured in it.

PETER ALEXANDER: Rubio is simply too programmed, too robotic.

RICHARD GRENELL: He was shown to be too robotic.

CARL CAMERON: That he’s robotic.

DANIEL HALPER: This narrative that he’s robotic.

STEPHEN HAYES: Robotic and repetitive.

BEN WHITE: He looked robotic.

AB STODDARD: Robotic talking points.

JOHN BERMAN: He is some kind of over-rehearsed robot.

LIMBAUGH: Now, I don't have anything other than anecdotal. I have seen a little videotape of voters talking about Rubio, and I have gone to comments sections of websites, and I haven't seen one voter talk about how Rubio was robotic. They've had other criticisms, and they've had other praise, but I haven't seen this Rubio was robotic. The media consensus -- and by the way, that's a cross section of every network that we have, at least one person on every network, "Rubio was robotic."
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, February 8, 2016, playing audio clips of media personalities commenting on Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who had been criticized by Republican presidential contender Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) for using scripted remarks while describing President Barack Obama.

Comment: Ironically (i.e., hypocritically?), these media personalities are robotically repeating the "talking point" that Rubio robotically repeats talking points.

RUBIO: As far as that message, I hope they keep running it, and I'm going to keep saying it because it is true. Barack Obama – yes, has he hired incompetent people to implement laws and run agencies? Absolutely. But when it comes to what he's trying to do to America, it is part of a plan. I'm gonna keep saying that, because not only is it the truth, it is part of our campaign. He has said he wanted to change the country, he's doing it in a way that is robbing us of everything that makes us special. I'm gonna keep saying that, because not only is it the truth, it is at the core of our campaign.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But even after Chris Christie called you out for what he called, "canned speeches", "25-second canned speeches", you repeat it again, he said there you go again, that was not a good moment for you was it?

RUBIO: It is what I believe and it is what I am going to continue to say because it happens to be one of the reasons why I am running. This is the greatest country in the history of mankind because of a certain set of principles. Barack Obama wants us to abandon those principles, and he has spent seven years putting in place policies that rip them from us: undermining the Constitution, undermining free enterprise, undermining our standard in the world, weakening America, apologizing for us on the global stage. The reason why I'm running is if we elect someone like that for the next four years, I think it may be too late for America to turn around.
-- Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), February 7, 2016, being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. The discussion concerned criticism from Republican presidential contender Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), who in a GOP debate the previous day had accused Rubio of using scripted remarks while describing President Barack Obama.

Comment: Rubio is rejecting the accusation that he is using talking points by insisting (correctly) that what matters is whether the points are true, not whether they are pre-written or off-the-cuff. However, Rubio's description of Obama as someone who is intentionally trying to destroy what is good about America amounts to demonizing, and perhaps also questioning Obama's patriotism.

"I'm hearing a lot of talking points being repeated about “this is a bad deal” -- “this is a historically bad deal,” “this will threaten Israel and threaten the world and threaten the United States.” I mean, there’s been a lot of that. What I haven’t heard is, what is your preferred alternative?"
-- President Barack Obama, July 15, 2015, during a press conference in which he defended the deal reached on Iran's nuclear program.

Comment: What's the significance of this objection being talking points? The content of the objection is what's important, not whether it's part of someone's talking points.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: Isn't it time for Hillary Clinton to speak out? If you were advising her, should she address these issues?

JAMES CARVILLE: I wouldn't -- I don't know exactly -- it was legal. It wasn't against regulations. Colin Powell and Jeb Bush did the same thing, but oh, my God. Do you remember Whitewater? Do you remember Filegate? Do you remember Travelgate? Do you remember Pardongate? Do you remember Benghazi? All of this is just the same cockamamie stuff that we go through. The Times got something from right-wing talking points. They print the story. They've got to walk the story back. And everybody -- the chin scratchers go 'Oh, my God. The story's not right, but it says something larger about the Clintons.' This is never going to end. We've lived with this for 20 years. We'll live with it for the rest of the campaign. It's all about nothing. That's my view of the whole thing. … If I were a member of the press and I realized that right-wing talking points helped get us into a war, I would probably rethink the way I get my information.

MITCHELL: Isn't this a distraction that she does not need and that the Democrats are very concerned about?

CARVILLE: First of all, there is always going to be a distraction in Clintonland. There never is a time when there's not. I've lived through this for 20 years. Don't you think that next week there will be some other thing that they'll crop up?
-- Pundit and political strategist James Carville, March 9, 2015, being interviewed by NBC News' Andrea Mitchell regarding former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of a non-governmental email server while she was in office.

Comment: What is the relevance of the claim that these accusations are "talking points"? What does it mean, and what does it tell us about whether the accusations are true? Just because an accusation is scripted or comes from a person's enemies doesn't prove that the accusations are false. Mitchell suggests the issue is a "distraction", but a distraction from what? Does being a distraction imply that the accusations aren't well-founded? Finally, Carville resorts to ad hominem reasoning, saying that, because Republicans (i.e., "right-wingers") were wrong about WMDs in Iraq, therefore they shouldn't be believed on the accusations about Clinton. But being wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in no way guarantees that they are wrong about Clinton. Think: how would Carville's argument work against someone who took the same position as the "right-wingers" on Clinton but not on WMDs? Would the accusation about Clinton suddenly stop being false?

"[A] vocal minority on the hard-left continues to argue to the leaders of their party -- from the President on down -- that Democrats in Washington should do absolutely nothing about short-term or long-term spending problems. This is the Thelma and Louise crowd, the ones who dream about higher taxes and the bigger government it will pay for, regardless of the impact on jobs or the economy or America’s standing in the world. These are the ones who recklessly ignore the fact that we can’t keep running trillion dollar deficits every year and throw a tantrum if somebody suggests that maybe the taxpayers shouldn’t keep subsidizing every last program Washington ever dreamed up. Their reckless and ideological approach threatens our future. And anyone who’s serious about solving the problems we face should ignore it, starting with the President. … It’s time for the President to present a plan that rises above these reckless and radical voices on the hard-Left, that goes beyond the talking points of the campaign trail, and that has a realistic chance of passing the Congress. The time for campaigning is over. It’s time for the President to lead."
-- Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), November 26, 2012, from the floor of the Senate.

Comment: First, who is saying this? McConnell doesn't name who holds the "Thelma and Louise" position he describes. The danger -- which brings us to the second point -- is that McConnell is creating a straw man, a caricature of his opponents. They really don't care at all about the impact on the U.S. economy? Third, McConnell is engaging in "ideological" rhetoric, as well as "radical" rhetoric, as well as "talking points" rhetoric.

"Mr. Ryan, as always, refused to acknowledge the improvement in the economy, at one point throwing out a canned talking point about the increase in unemployment in the depressed industrial city of Scranton, Pa.".
-- Editorial by The New York Times, October 12, 2012, regarding GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his remarks during the vice presidential debate.

Comment: Whether Ryan's remark was a talking point says nothing about whether or not it was true.

"The first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, so long anticipated, quickly sunk into an unenlightening recitation of tired talking points and mendacity."
-- Editorial by The New York Times, October 4, 2012, regarding the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA).

Comment: What's wrong with talking points? Or tired ones?

"Were we all watching the same debate? Mitt Romney came across as breathless and aggressive to the point of being in your face. He repeated Republican talking points and recent accusations as often as possible (apparently as instructed over two weeks of preparation)."
-- Patricia A. Weller, letter to the editor of The New York Times, October 4, 2012.

Comment: Even if it's the case that Romney repeated talking points he was instructed to say over two weeks of preparation, it's still an open question as to whether or not what he said was true.

LIMBAUGH: We go to Oklahoma City. It's Duane. Duane, great to have you here, sir.

DUANE [last name unknown]: I'd like to talk with you about how I feel it's unfair that the richer folks don't pay -- uh, richer folks pay lower amounts of taxes than middle class folks. … Mitt Romney's a good example. The last two years he's made about $21 million, plus his Cayman Island accounts, and he's only paid between 13% and 15% taxes.

LIMBAUGH: Our buddy Duane in Oklahoma City: When it comes to Romney's taxes, Duane, you need to get a new talking point or newer talking points out there. The complaint today is that Romney paid too much in taxes to make himself look good. I kid you not!
-- Radio pundit Rush Limbaugh, September 24, 2012.

Comment: Perhaps Limbaugh is right that Duane is reciting talking points (maybe even old ones), but that tells us nothing about whether what Duane is saying is true.

LIMBAUGH: Now we have an inane media mantra. We have a montage here from Saturday and Sunday, a bunch of mainstream media people describing the race. And they're all saying the same thing, by the way. It's now a "choice." You see, it's not a referendum. It was gonna be a referendum on Obama. Romney had said that. But now he's put Paul Ryan on the ticket, and it's no longer a referendum on Obama, 'cause now that Ryan's on the ticket. It's now a "choice." Here. Listen and see if this makes any sense to you.
MARK MURRAY: They wanted to make this a referendum on Obama; now it's a choice.
JOHN KING: Romney has tried to make it a referendum; now you have a choice.
CANDY CROWLEY: What Barack Obama wants to do is make this a the choice. Mitt Romney wanted to make this a referendum.
PERRY BACON: Is was going to be a referendum. Now it becomes much more of a choice.
CHUCK TODD: This is not a referendum election, this is a choice election.
RICHARD LUI: No longer a referendum on the president. They now had to move into a choice election.
ROGER SIMON: It makes the election not a referendum on Barack Obama.
DAVID KERLEY: This changes the storyline from a referendum on the president to a choice election.
GAVIN NEWSOM: We have a choice, and it's no longer referendum.
RON BROWNSTEIN: Shift the election more toward the choice and away from the referendum.
LIMBAUGH: Isn't this amazing how they all get the same fax? They get the same talking points, every one of these people. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, ten people in our montage. Remember when Bush put Cheney on the ticket, "It brings gravitas." Now it's a choice election, not a referendum election. What changed?
-- Radio pundit Rush Limbaugh, August 13, 2012.

Comment: Limbaugh gives a good amount of evidence for the claim that people in the media adopt the same verbiage. But what does that prove? In particular, does the fact that they use the same vocabulary (or that they've recently changed their opinion) prove that what they're saying is false?

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

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