Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bales and Bales of Straw

The Associated Press tells us that President Bush has been using straw-man arguments in his speeches. It's nice to see some mainstream news outlet finally cotton on to something that should have been obvious for years to any sentient human.

In a straw-man argument, for those not in the know, one constructs a flimsy caricature of an opponent's position -- the "straw man" -- and then noisily knocks it over, proclaiming victory. Nothing of substance has been achieved, because the real opposing position hasn't even been met, much less bested. It's deeply dishonest. But it can look impressive to the unwary.

I don't happen to know, and the AP article doesn't say, whether Bush is freer in his use of straw men than previous presidents or than his political opponents today, but my guess is that he is. In any event it would make an interesting subject for study.

But he certainly does do it a lot. He was at it again just yesterday. At a White House press conference, Carl Cameron of Faux News asked him about the move in the Senate to censure him over illegal NSA wiretapping:

The primary sponsor, Russ Feingold, has suggested that impeachment is not out of the question. And on Sunday, the number two Democrat in the Senate refused to rule that out pending an investigation. What, sir, do you think the impact of the discussion of impeachment and censure does to you and this office, and to the nation during a time of war, and in the context of the election?
(Incidentally, you have to wonder what the White House press office thought they were doing inviting faux newsman Jim "Jeff Gannon" Guckert from faux news organization "Talon News" into White House press briefings. Guckert, of course, achieved fame for such softball questions as "How are you going to work – you've said you are going to reach out to these people – how are you going to work with people [Senate Democratic Leaders] who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?" Clearly this was an unnecessary and risky undertaking, given that capital-F Faux News people such as Cameron are obviously willing to ask the same sort of might-have-been-written-in-Karl-Rove's-office questions.)

This was the signal for Bush to pull out one of his biggest straw men to date:

I did notice that nobody from the Democrat Party has actually stood up and called for getting rid of the terrorist surveillance program. You know, if that's what they believe, if people in the party believe that, then they ought to stand up and say it. They ought to stand up and say the tools we're using to protect the American people shouldn't be used. They ought to take their message to the people and say, vote for me, I promise we're not going to have a terrorist surveillance program. That's what they ought to be doing. That's part of what is an open and honest debate.
But Bush said it himself: nobody has actually stood up and said that. Not because they're afraid of the political ramifications, but because that's not the argument. Nobody thinks we shouldn't be listening in on terrorists. The argument is that the wiretapping was undertaken illegally, in defiance of the explicit requirement for judicial oversight enacted in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). That "vote for me and I promise we won't have a terrorist surveillance program" is straw through and through. The real argument is that we have a Constitution, and we have laws, and Bush has violated them.

What's more, Bush must know this. He must know that not a single Democrat has called, or would call, for ending all surveillance of known or suspected terrorists. In describing their position as he has, he is lying.

It's amusing to turn this around. I wouldn't mind at all seeing Republican candidates in the upcoming elections take to the stump and say:

The tools that the Founding Fathers devised to protect the American people from unbridled executive power shouldn't be used. Vote for me, and I promise you that we're not going to have Constitutional checks and balances or a Bill of Rights.
A straw man? Yeah, I suppose.