The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Of Straw Men, Politics and Policy

Posted on | May 11, 2011 | 4 Comments

Here is (limited) praise of the use of “straw men” in discourse and, guest-blogging at Instapundit, Kenneth Anderson says, “I rather agree.”

Stipulate that creating a tendentious characterization of an opposing argument for the sake of argument is nothing particularly objectionable.

If all you are doing is hashing out ideas in a more or less hypothetical fashion, then you may create and hack down entire brigades of straw-man opponents, without inflicting any real harm on anyone. (I sometimes have to point out to critics of my blog that, if I’m wrong, the stakes are rather low, given my limited influence.)

The situation is much different, however, when we see how often President Obama employs the straw men “some” and “others” to falsely present his own agenda as a sort of moderate Third Way compromise between two equally obnoxious extremes. Obama presents himself as the Goldilocks of public policy, sampling the bowls of porridge at the home of the Three Bears until he finds one that is neither too hot nor too cold. This presentation of rejected (hypothetical) alternatives conveniently relieves Obama of justifying his own specific policy proposals as necessary.
At other times, Obama portrays himself as locked in political combat with unnamed straw-men to whom he attributes vicious actions or malign motives. Karl Rove called him out on that in early 2009:

[I]n his first address to a joint session of Congress] Mr. Obama told Congress and the nation, “I reject the view that . . . says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity.” Who exactly has that view? Certainly not congressional Republicans, who believe that through reasonable tax cuts, fiscal restraint, and prudent monetary policies government contributes to prosperity.. . .
Mr. Obama also said that America’s economic difficulties resulted when “regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market.” Who gutted which regulations? . . .
Even in an ostensibly nonpartisan speech marking Lincoln’s 200th birthday, Mr. Obama used a straw-man argument, decrying “a philosophy that says every problem can be solved if only government would step out of the way; that if government were just dismantled, divvied up into tax breaks, and handed out to the wealthiest among us, it would somehow benefit us all. Such knee-jerk disdain for government — this constant rejection of any common endeavor — cannot rebuild our levees or our roads or our bridges.”
Whose philosophy is this? Many Americans justifiably believe that government is too big and often acts in counterproductive ways. But that’s a far cry from believing that in “every” case government is the problem or that government should be “dismantled” root and branch.

This is how Obama argues routinely, day in and day out, in all his public utterances. If it weren’t for straw-man arguments, he’d have nothing to say.

That the President of the United States habitually employs invalid modes of argumentation might not be so objectionable, if his policies were obviously effective in coping with public problems. But especially in terms of addressing our economic and fiscal difficulties, what exactly has Obama done? He enacted an agenda of massive Keynesian “stimulus” interventions, an equally massive health-care bill, took over auto companies, etc., etc. — and where’s the payoff?

Unemployment is stuck at 9%, the housing market is still a disaster, deficit spending is out of control and Obama has no feasible proposal to fix any of these problems.

Far from being merely “for the sake of argument” exercises — proposing hypothetical alternatives in a moot debate — Obama’s straw-men arguments are the rhetorical weapons by which he defends his administration’s failed policies. So it is not nitpicking to point out his use of such arguments, or to point them out when used by Obama’s defenders.

Furthermore, at a time when Rep. Paul Ryan and other Republicans have offered actual plans to deal with these problems, we cannot let Obama and his defenders get away with criticizing the GOP plans while offering no detailed counter-proposals.

The Democrats are trying to have it both ways: Holding the White House and the Senate majority, thus able to reject anything the House Republicans may propose (and demonizing them for daring to propose it) while offering no specific Democratic alternative. During the two years when Democrats held the White House and both houses of Congress, they failed even to pass a budget for fiscal year 2011. At no point have any of the principle leaders of the Democrats in Washington — Obama, Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid — ever offered any feasible plan to reduce the federal budget deficit. For them to now present themselves as worthy critics of any Republican plan is the height of absurdity.

Next time you see a Democrat reaching for a straw man, whip out your Zippo lighter and torch it.


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