Search results for the tag, "Political Rhetoric"

March 19th, 2008

You’re No Bill Buckley, Grover Norquist

Democrats are the enemy. Democrats are evil.

Even in Washington, these comments exhibit an unusual pugnacity—so much so that I asked the speaker, the illustrious Grover Norquist, if he were simply being playful, interspersing witty asides into his diatribes, as seems to be his wont. (The question followed a 40-minute talk on his new book, Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives, and took place earlier this week at the office of Americans for Tax Reform, of which Grover is president.)

Certainly not, he retorted, his voice rising. Politics is a deadly serious game, and when certain ideas have the effect of destroying both you and your country, then they absolutely warrant the appellation “evil.”

For example, he continued, we all agree that when Alabama Governor George Wallace, in 1963, physically blocked the entrance of black children into a “whites only” public school, that was evil. By the same token, when Senator Ted Kennedy denies black children the opportunity to escape, via private education vouchers, the swampland that public education has become—that, too, is evil.

Of course, there’s evil and then there’s evil, I countered. When 19 men crash two jumbo jets into a skyscraper and slaughter 3,000 innocent civilians, that’s evil. When someone tries to ameliorate our education system even in a counterproductive way, call him incompetent and call his legislation asinine, but don’t equate disagreements over public policy to mass murder.

Yes, there are levels of evil, Grover conceded, but the violence Democrats seek to visit upon us—steal our money, ban our guns, regulate the size of everything from our cars to our toilet seats to stop global warming—is still evil.

If you buy this, my bet is you’re an Ayn Rand fan. (Collapsing the distinction between ideas and actions, Rand equated Immanuel Kant with Adolf Hitler, insofar as Kant’s deontological philosophy facilitated Hitler’s holocaust.)

For those of us, however, who live outside the world of ARI and HBL and TIA—in the so-called reality-based community—the distinction between Democrats and Republicans is not one of evil vs. good. As any libertarian can tell you, there’s more that unites the two parties than separates them. There are real differences, to be sure, but I think it’s fair to say that almost every member of Congress votes in good faith. (Yes, this includes Ron Paul.)

As for Grover, he is the most brilliant strategist and networker I’ve ever met in politics. He is a genius at elucidating complex ideas, especially via memorable metaphors, and now that William F. Buckley Jr. has passed, he is the putative head of the conservative moment.

Yet the comparison to Buckley is instructive. As Radley Balko put it in an obituary,

Buckley was intellectually honest, engaged his opponents fairly, and was willing to admit when he’d been wrong (see his change of position on the drug prohibition and the war in Iraq, respectively). More importantly, he was no party hack. He was beholden to ideas.

If only we could say the same about Grover Norquist. Instead, I suspect we’ll remember Grover more for his hyperpartisan, polarizing Wednesday Meetings than for his thoughtful, reasoned contributions to our political discourse.

Addendum (3/20/2008): To use a point Grover himself made, when Republicans raise taxes, it’s not a victimless crime, since they degrade the Republican brand that is associated with no new taxes. By the same logic, when Republicans employ gross hyperbole, they hog the spotlight and crowd out those who share their political ideas but repudiate their rhetoric.

July 18th, 2007

Wisdom from Joe Klein’s Politics Lost


A month ago, I was asked to name the three most recent books I had read. I could only name two—Bob Woodward’s State of Denial and One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century.

I explained that I am a voracious reader, but of newspapers, magazines and blogs, but I was chagrined.

Accordingly, I’ve since digested three books, all of which I’ll blog about by quoting or summarizing the passages I underlined. Here’s the first, which was inspiring, highly informed, balanced while retaining conviction, yet not wholly persuasive; that is, Joe’s thesis works best if applied selectively rather than comprehensively. (Disclosure/self-promotion: as an editorial intern at Time in 2004, I did some research for Joe on this column.)

Here’s the thesis:

I am fed up with the insulting welter of sterilized speechifying, insipid photo ops, and idiotic advertising that passes for public discourse these days. I believe that American politics has become overly cautious, cynical, mechanistic, and bland; and I fear that the inanity and ugliness of postmodern public life has caused many Americans to lose the habits of citizenship. . . .

[What we need is] not just the intermittent bolts of unmassaged oratory but also the spontaneous moments of honor and cowardice, the gestures, the body language, the smirks and sighs—that gave us real insight into those who would lead us. It encompasses Bobby Kennedy quoting Aeschylus and Richard Nixon saying that we won’t have him to kick around anymore.

1. On Ronald Reagan (paraphrased):

Once, when Reagan aide Michael Deaver handed his boss some questions Deaver had planted with a friendly audience, Reagan tossed the questions into the trash. “Mike, this won’t work,” he said. “You can’t hit a home run with a softball.

2. On Republican vs. Democratic messaging:

Ronald Reagan had given his party the gifts of simplicity and clarity and, as we have seen, a coherent belief system that could be explained in sentence fragments. Military Strength. Low Taxes. Traditional Values. The Democrats, by contrast, were the party of the complex, clause-draped sentence: “We need to spend money on Head Start programs in order to… [ellipsis in original]”. . . .

Democrats slouched toward public pessimism—the middle class was always suffering silently, the poor neglected, the environment degraded—but they were philosophically optimistic: humankind was improvable, reform possible, government could help make things better. Republicans, by contrast, were publicly optimistic—the United States was exceptional, the greatest country in the world, and anyone who said otherwise was unpatriotic—but privately realistic and often pessimistic: people were who they were, the poor would always be with us and there was no sense trying to change them. . . .

In public, Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” was countered by Congressman Richard Gephardt’s 1988 “it’s close to midnight and getting darker all the time”. . . . In 1968 . . . an academic named William Gavin, who would later become a White House speechwriter, sent Richard Nixon a memo about communications strategy: “Voters are basically lazy, basically uninterested in making an effort to understand what we are talking about.” He went on to discuss the difference between intellectual and emotional appeals: “Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand.”

3. On impressions vs. policies:

In the television era, fleeting impressions counted far more than cogent policies. Fleeting impressions were all most people had time for. Presidential politics was all about character… [ellipsis in original] or rather, the appearance of character. . . . [I]t wasn’t about the economy, stupid.

It was about the appearance of caring about the economy, stupid.

4. “The best political advice I’ve ever heard,” from William Bennett to a meeting of the Christian Coalition:

“Some of the people who follow me onto the stage are going to say things that you will find very pleasing. They speak our our ‘virtues’ and the vices of the other party. They will speak about ‘us’ and ‘them.’ But in America there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There is only ‘us.’ And if a candidate tells you only thing that you want to hear, if he asks nothing of you—then give him nothing in return, certainly not your vote, because he is not telling you the truth.”

5. On fund-raising:

“Do you want to know what I do all day?” he [Alex Sanders, the Democratic sacrificial lamb in the 2002 race for Strom Thurmond’s South Carolina Senate seat] asked me. “I sit at a desk with a telephone. A woman named Ashley Newton sits across from me with pieces of paper called focus sheets and a stopwatch. She hands me a focus sheet and a phone number and some vital information about a potential contributor. I call the number. She starts the stopwatch. I have six minutes to make the sale. I’m supposed to make ten calls per hour. So I start out like this, ‘Hello, my name is Alex Sanders and I’m running for the United States Senate. Have you ever heard of me in your whole entire life?’ Then I chat with him for a moment about life at his horse farm or whatever. I tell him I know about the horse farm because I have a focus sheet with all this information. And then I say, ‘I’m not calling to ask for your vote. It’d be a waste of time to ask for a single vote. My purpose is far more humiliating. It’s the chemotherapy of a political campaign. It’s painful… [ellipsis in original] Wouldja give me some money?’ If they say yes, I tell them I have two more questions, and these are far more humiliating than the last. ‘First, I am so sorry to have to ask but, when you gonna send the money? Can you send it today?’ And then I say, ‘Now this last question is so embarrassing that I can hardly bring myself to ask it, but… [ellipsis in original] How much?’ And before they can think about it, I jump in and say, ‘How ’bout a thousand bucks?’

6. On John McCain:

It was one of the oddest qualities I’d ever seen in a candidate—entirely sincere and politically brilliant. . . . In one fairly dramatic example, McCain told me, unbidden, that the breakup of his first marriage was all his fault: “I’ve lived a very, very flawed life. I don’t think people would think so well of me if they knew more about that part of it”. . . .

“There aren’t many of us who haven’t done things we’re ashamed of over the past 25 years,” I said.

7. On Al Gore:

There was something about the vice president that simply demanded couchification. He was successfully analyzed by his opponents. He was unsuccessfully analyzed by his own consultants.

8. On John Kerry:

He proved weak, indecisive, and yes, aloof. At six feet, four inches tall, with a head of hair that came out of central casting and a sonorous baritone that slouched toward drone, he literally seemed to have his head in the clouds; there was a distressing, unfocused, soporific quality tot he man. The prevailing mystery of the Kerry campaign, especially for those who had known him longest—the Vietnam veterans he had led in war (and in peace marches)—was: Whatever happened to the courageous young leader who had risked his life to protect his crew in Vietnam and risked his political career to oppose the war when he came home?

9. On Bill Clinton

[A] womanizer of desperately bad taste.

10. On Howard Dean (paraphrased):

When the Democratic front-runner for president in 2004 said the capture of Saddam Hussein didn’t make America safer, “the real problem was that Dean didn’t seem particularly happy that Saddam had been captured—in fact, he seemed disappointed that the president’s war effort had succeeded in any way.”

11. On Mario Cuomo:

In 1982, I traveled through New York State with Mario Cuomo, who was more than 30 points behind Ed Koch in the Democratic primary for governor. The biggest issue in the race was the death penalty, and Cuomo was on the wrong side of it. And yet, at every stop, Cuomo insisted on explaining his position; if the audience didn’t ask him about the death penalty, he’d bring it up himself. “You might well ask me how I’d react if a member of my family were the victim of a brutal crime,” he would posit, in an eerie prediction of the question that would boggle Dukakis in 1988. “Well, my daughter was recently assaulted on the street in our neighborhood by a man who burned her breast with a cigarette. My son Andrew got into the car with a baseball bat and looked all over the neighborhood for the guy—and I’ve got to say, if I’d ever caught up with him … [ellipsis in original] well, I can’t guarantee what I would have done. But I’d be acting on my worst impulses, my momentary anger. One of the purposes of the state is to protect us from our worst impulses—and the desire for vengeance is one of the very worst. So, lock ’em up. Throw away the key. But don’t succumb to our worst impulses, our vengeance.”

12. On Democratic words that work (paraphrased):

Greenberg and Clinton devised a brilliant euphemism for spending money: “investing” in the future.

June 29th, 2007

“Defeatist” Smear Is Indefensible

An hour ago, blogger N.Z. Bear e-mailed his Rightblogs ListServ to decry “defeatist rhetoric” about Iraq. Here’s what he wrote (reprinted with permission):

We must use whatever power we have to ensure that our wobbly political class doesn’t rob the troops in the field of the chance to win. That doesn’t mean blind obedience to the administration’s position, but it does mean combating the defeatist rhetoric that is now beginning to come from even Republican corners.

I asked N.Z. if by “defeatist rhetoric” he means that there are no honest arguments for any form of withdrawal? He responded as follows:

Not at all. But when people say thin[g]s (a la Harry Reid) like “the war is lost,” I’d call that defeatist. And I’d call [Senator] Lugar’s recent call for withdrawal because he thinks the surge isn’t working—after mere weeks—defeatist as well.

I’m open to being convinced that we’ve lost the war and have been defeated. But I’ve yet to see any genuinely serious arguments to that end…

Without wading into the question of whether the U.S. has been “defeated” in Iraq (I prefer to ask if our presence there is worthwhile?), I strongly object to the word “defeatist,” because it implies that anyone who isn’t Cheney-esque about the war is actually hoping for an American defeat. People can reasonably disagree about our prospects for victory, but to impugn the motives of those with whom you disagree in this way is vicious and vacuous.

I’ll leave the last words to Senator Chuck Hagel:

I am not, nor any member of Congress that I’m aware of, Tim, is advocating defeat. That’s ridiculous, and I’m offended that any responsible member of Congress or anyone else would even suggest such a thing.

Addendum: N.Z. responds:

My quick response, for the record, is that “defeatist rhetoric” doesn’t necessarily mean the speaker wishes for defeat—it means that the rhetoric itself makes it more likely that we will be defeated (by encouraging our enemy / discouraging ourselves). I’m not interested in or trying to attack someone[‘]s motives or inner feelings—I’m interested in the results of their actions.

That of course doesn’t mean I never want to hear anything bad said about the war, but I expect that if someone like a U.S. Senator is going to say something bad, that it should be clearly based in fact and constructive. (Reid and Lugar’s comments both fail that test in my mind.)

This is an important distinction, but it leaves a couple questions:

1. What about Lugar’s critique is un-factual and unconstructive? Here’s what he said: “The president has the opportunity now to bring about a bipartisan foreign policy. I don’t think he’ll have that option very long.”

(Lugar added, “Those who offer constructive criticism of the surge strategy are not defeatists, any more than those who warn against a precipitous withdrawal are militarists.”)

2. What is the responsibility of a member of a Congress who strongly believes the war is lost? If he speaks out, then, according to N.Z., he hurts the troops. But if he holds his breath, he betrays his conscience and surrenders leadership. Note: now that we’re more than four years into the war, the usual answer—that he should express his disagreement in private—is obsolete.

June 16th, 2007

Mitt’s Words That Work

Mitt Romney’s various changes of heart demand a ready repository of finely tuned explanations. Rhetorically, if not factually, his answers are brilliant, employing what pollster Frank Luntz calls “words that work.” This does not necessarily mean answering the question, but reframing it onto common or comfortable territory. Some examples:

1. On abortion, from the third GOP debate:

Q: You made . . . this decision on abortion, opposing abortion, relatively recently. Why should conservatives out there, people who oppose abortion believe you?

A: I’m not going to apologize for the fact that I became pro-life.

2. On his changes of hearts, from his announcement for president:

I haven’t always been a Ronald Reagan conservative. But then again, neither was Ronald Reagan.

3. On abortion, from an address earlier this week to the National Right to Life organization:

I proudly follow a long line of converts—George Herbert Walker Bush, Henry Hyde and Ronald Reagan, to name a few. I am evidence that your work, that your relentless campaign to promote the sanctity of human life, bears fruit.

4. On being Mormon, from the third GOP debate:

Q: [T]here was a recent poll here in New Hampshire. Ten percent said they wouldn’t vote for you because you’re a Mormon. And last week we saw that picture of that man who refused to shake your hand because you are a Mormon. What would you like to say to the voters out there tonight about your faith, about yourself and about God?

A: Well, President Kennedy some time ago said he was not a Catholic running for president; he was an American running for president. And I’m happy to be a proud member of my faith. You know, I think it’s a fair question for people to ask, What do you believe? And I think if you want to understand what I believe, you could recognize that the values that I have are the same values you’ll find in faiths across this country. I believe in God, believe in the Bible, believe Jesus Christ is my savior. I believe that God created man in his image. I believe that the freedoms of man derive from inalienable rights that were given to us by God. And I also believe that there are some pundits out there that are hoping that I’ll distance myself from my church so that that’ll help me politically, and that’s not going to happen.

Addendum (6/25/2007): One glaring exception was Romney’s answer to the question, “Knowing everything you know right now, was it a mistake for us to invade Iraq?”

Well, I answered the question by saying it’s a—it’s a non sequitur, it’s a null set kind of question, because you can go back and say, if we knew then what we know now, by virtue of inspectors having been let in and giving us that information, by virtue of if Saddam Hussein had followed the U.N. resolutions, we wouldn’t be having this—this discussion. So it’s a hypothetical that I think is an unreasonable hypothetical. And the answer is, we did what we did; we did the right thing based on what we knew at that time. I think we made mistakes following the conduct—or the collapse of Saddam’s government.

April 11th, 2007

Trimming the Trees

Pit easily exploitable emotions against deep philosophical convictions, and you get a glimpse of the debate over stem-cell research.

“Consequently,” write Robert George and Thomas Berg, “we propose six facts on which people on either side of the . . . debate should be able to agree”:

1. There is no “ban” on human embryonic stem cell research in the United States.
2. We are a long way away from therapies derived from embryonic stem cells.
3. The human embryo has at least some degree of special moral status.
4. There are non-controversial alternatives worth exploring.
5. Concerns about embryo destruction are not only religious.
6. [Omitted because it’s nonsense.]

One of the best strategies for reasoned discourse—where the goal is enlightenment, not victory—is to begin with common ground. The above essay is a good example, since by trimming the trees, if you will, it shifts the discussion to the forest, like where life begins and what research taxpayer dollars should fund.

My proposal for the next such primer concerns another subject fueled more by ignorance and arrogance than by facts: global warming. Here’s a start:

1. The earth is warming.
2. Human activity is partly responsible for the warming.
3. Environmentalists have a track record of alarmism.

From here, we can delve into the essential issue: will the warming be disastrous?