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By Jay Cost

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The President Attacks a Republican Straw Man

President Obama, as we all know, made bipartisanship a central theme of his campaign last year. Yet he was unable to pull in many Republicans on the stimulus bill. In the wake of this, some have suggested that the President's bipartisan success will be in changing the tone. This is what Alex MacGillis and Paul Kane wrote last week on the front page of the Washington Post:

But the White House did not view the rejection of Obama's initial bid at fostering bipartisanship as a stinging disappointment. Even as Obama was unable to pick up their votes, he was left with many Republicans praising his outreach. And judging by Obama's record, it is this tone of mutual respect that -- at least for now -- he may be after as much as actual votes on bills he could pass without significant GOP backing. [Snip]

When Obama called for an end to "broken and divided politics," his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and others contended that there were few instances in Obama's career when he had made major concessions that upset fellow Democrats to reach agreement with Republicans.

But this, said some who have worked with Obama, overlooked his intent. To Obama, they said, fixing "broken politics" is less about making concessions just for the sake of finding common ground and more about elevating the debate -- replacing cynical gamesmanship and immature name-calling with intellectually honest arguments and respect for the other side's motives. In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama waxes nostalgic about the fellowship and vigorous debate of Congress's halcyon days in the mid-20th century more than about the centrist deals the era produced.

If this is the bipartisan direction the President intends to head in, I think that could be a good thing - and, in the long run, it could produce policy compromises as both sides begin to believe that the other is treating them in good faith.

Unfortunately, I do not think last night's press conference was helpful in achieving this goal. Time and again, I noted that the President engaged in a rhetorical maneuver commonly called "attacking a straw man." That's what you do when you mischaracterize your opponent's position, and you refute the mischaracterization rather than what your opponent really thinks.

Ed Morrissey and Mary Katharine Ham noted the same trend during the presser, and I want to take some time to amplify this point. The first instance came in his introductory remarks:

But as we've learned very clearly and conclusively over the last eight years, tax cuts alone can't solve all of our economic problems, especially tax cuts that are targeted to the wealthiest few Americans. We have tried that strategy time and time again, and it's only helped lead us to the crisis we face right now.

Who's arguing that "tax cuts alone" will solve this problem? Even if some are, is this the median position on the Republican side? Is this the position of the more moderate members of the GOP Senate caucus like Lugar, Voinovich, and Murkowski? How about moderate House Republicans like Kirk, LoBiondo, and Castle? We might count it as bipartisanship if Obama had picked up a few of them, but he didn't. Is it because this is their position? I don't think so.

The following came in his answer to AP's Jennifer Loven:

Some of the criticisms really are with the basic idea that government should intervene at all in this moment of crisis. Now, you have some people, very sincere, who philosophically just think the government has no business interfering in the marketplace. And, in fact, there are several who've suggested that FDR was wrong to interfere back in the New Deal. They're fighting battles that I thought were resolved a pretty long time ago.

Again, this characterization might be valid for a minority on the Republican side - but I have not heard anybody serious criticize the idea that the government should not intervene. George W. Bush's tax cuts early in this decade were sold in part as government intervention to ameliorate recession - and Republicans loved that. The difference between the sides is in the strategy for intervention, not the principle that the government has the authority to intervene, or that intervention is imprudent. The real debate is not whether intervention should happen, but how it should happen.

He made a similar comment in response to Chip Reid:

As I said, the one concern I've got on the stimulus package, in terms of the debate and listening to some of what's been said in Congress, is that there seems to be a set of folks who -- I don't doubt their sincerity -- who just believe that we should do nothing.

Now, if that's their opening position or their closing position in negotiations, then we're probably not going to make much progress, because I don't think that's economically sound and I don't think what -- that's what the American people expect, is for us to stand by and do nothing.

Again, who is seriously arguing that nothing should be done?

The President then said this:

There are others who recognize that we've got to do a significant recovery package, but they're concerned about the mix of what's in there. And if they're sincere about it, then I'm happy to have conversations about this tax cut versus that -- that tax cut or this infrastructure project versus that infrastructure project.

If they are sincere? This fits back into a previous comment he made (not quoted here) about "the usual political games." The implication seems to be that there is some subset of members in opposition who are insincere, who are playing the usual political games and not genuinely interested in the best bill possible. Who fits this profile?

This is not really attacking a straw man, but it is a related rhetorical maneuver called ad hominem attack, wherein you go after personal qualities of your opponent rather than the argument s/he is making. Additionally, the attack is so vague that it is essentially unfalsifiable. He's not singling out anybody in particular, so it is impossible to refute the charge.

He then said this:

This is another concern that I've had in some of the arguments that I'm hearing. When people suggest that, "What a waste of money to make federal buildings more energy-efficient." Why would that be a waste of money?

We're creating jobs immediately by retrofitting these buildings or weatherizing 2 million Americans' homes, as was called for in the package, so that right there creates economic stimulus.

And we are saving taxpayers when it comes to federal buildings potentially $2 billion. In the case of homeowners, they will see more money in their pockets. And we're reducing our dependence on foreign oil in the Middle East. Why wouldn't we want to make that kind of investment?

Now, maybe philosophically you just don't think that the federal government should be involved in energy policy. I happen to disagree with that; I think that's the reason why we find ourselves importing more foreign oil now than we did back in the early '70s when OPEC first formed.

Is this really the opposition's argument? To my ears, they're asserting that things like this, while they might be worthy, are not stimulative - and they should be implemented via the normal legislative process.

And who thinks the federal government should not be involved in energy policy? And even if somebody did think that, how does that relate to energy efficiency in government buildings? Is there anybody arguing that because the government should not meddle in the economy to secure greater energy efficiency, they shouldn't put new windows in the J. Edgar Hoover Building? That makes no sense at all.

Finally, in his response to Mara Liasson, the President again questioned the intentions of his opposition:

Well, as I said before, Mara, I think that old habits are hard to break. And we're coming off an election, and I think people want to sort of test the limits of -- of what they can get. You know, there's a lot of jockeying in this town, and a lot of "who's up and who's down," and positioning for the next election. [Snip]

One thing that I think is important is to recognize that, because all these -- all these items that you listed are hard, that people have to break out of some of the ideological rigidity and gridlock that we've been carrying around for too long. [Snip]

I think there are a lot of Republicans who are sincere in recognizing that, unless we deal with entitlements in a serious way, the problems we have with this year's deficit and next year's deficit pale in comparison to what we're going to be seeing 10 or 15 years or 20 years down the road.

And so when I hear people just saying, "Ah, we don't need to do anything," "This is a spending bill, not a stimulus bill," without acknowledging that, by definition, part of any stimulus package would include spending -- that's the point -- then what I get a sense of is, is that there's some ideological blockage there that needs to be cleared up.

Note the first line of the third paragraph: "a lot of Republicans" are sincere. Implication: plenty of them aren't, too. They are testing the limits, trying to get everything they can as a prelude to the next election.

The final paragraph actually links the two rhetorical maneuvers I've indicated. He mischaracterizes the Republican position, then dismisses it by saying that they are ideologically blocked (whatever that means).

So, time and again in this press conference, we saw the President mischaracterize the Republican position. That's not to say that no Republicans (or conservatives) hold the views that the President claimed they do (though I don't think anybody is opposed to modernizing government buildings!). The point is that none of these views reflect the median Republican position, let alone the "left-leaning" position of the kinds of Republicans who could be brought into a Democrat-led initiative like this stimulus bill.

Now, I've singled the President out not because he is the only politician who engages in this kind of maneuvering. Far from it! In fact, these rhetorical maneuvers are the stock in trade of debate in Washington. Politicos "win" arguments by mischaracterizing their opponents' positions and/or attacking their personal motivations. That's just how the game is played.

The problem is that - as MacGillis and Kane argue - Obama's objective is to change the tone, making it more civil. If he wants to see that happen, he needs to stop making such assertions, for all they will do is annoy the opposition. This is why I've singled the President out today - because elevating the tone means fairly (and sometimes even charitably) characterizing your opposition. That is a necessary condition for a civilized debate.

That's something I would like to see happen more often in our political debate, and the President's press conference genuinely disappointed me in that regard.

-Jay Cost