Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
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Posts - May 14-20

5/17 - Brendan: Olson rhetoric alert (permanent link)
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Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee split 9-9 along partisan lines on Ted Olson's nomination, with Democrats following ranking member Patrick Leahy in voting no on the basis of unresolved questions about Olson's testimony. The nomination will now proceed to the Senate floor under the power-sharing rules in place in the evenly divided Senate.

Let's review. As Joe Conason pointed out in Salon.com today, the main rhetorical argument for Olson is essentially that he's a good man (just like it was for John Ashcroft). According to Olson's defenders, there is no reason to investigate further, while his opponents support a quick inquiry.

Setting aside the dispute over the facts of the case, what's especially unfortunate is the way that many of Olson's supporters have descended into inflammatory attacks on their opponents, even as they criticize what they perceive as personal attacks on Olson. Remember, there are few, if any, on-the-record quotes from Democratic politicians or from the media that go beyond calling for more investigation into Olson's statements. Nonetheless, Olson's defenders are again re-deploying the slash and burn rhetoric used against Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

-In his New York Times column, William Safire makes a legitimate argument about First Amendment concerns in an investigation of the Spectator, but repeatedly makes overblown comparisons to Watergate-style intimidation of the press (the piece is titled "The Senate Plumbers"). To his credit, however, Safire is alone in calling Leahy a decent person and believing that he has good intentions.

-A Washington Times editorial continues Orrin Hatch's payback theme from Tuesday (below), writing that "Democrats stewing over what they perceive to be the injustice of the [presidential election] result have the long knives out for Mr. Olson". It also makes a ridiculous analogy between an investigation of Olson's statements and "Vladimir Putin's Russia".

-The Wall Street Journal today also editorializes against Leahy using his powers to "intimidate a small magazine": "Some Democrats want to wreck the vote to pay Mr. Olson back for the Florida Presidential contest". Like the Washington Times, the Journal includes a long character reference from a Democratic lawyer, as if that somehow answers questions about Olson's testimony (this is especially similar to the tactics used in the debate over Ashcroft).

-Finally, Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch continues to produce classic examples of irrational rhetoric. Hatch is, by all rights, very angry. According to the National Review, Hatch exclaimed "Who the hell cares about the Arkansas Project anymore?" during the hearing. Afterward, when reporters asked him what he thought the Democrats would do next, he opened up: "Who knows what lurks in the deep, hidden recesses of the Democrats' hearts?" This last quote is perhaps the most blatant attempt to insinuate that opposition to Olson is evil seen so far, but, following normal practice, Hatch phrased the insinuation in the form of a question. That construction allows Hatch to deny that he was actually asserting that Democrats are opposing Olson because they are evil.

5/16 - Ben: Drug czar nominee mugged by the media (permanent link)
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In the rhetorical battle over the drug war, it's often legalization proponents accusing hard-liners of ignoring the facts - namely, that high demand for illegal drugs makes efforts to limit supply ineffective.

The first spin to appear over John P. Walters, President Bush's choice for "drug czar", has things just the other way, however. Salon first picked Walters as the leading candidate to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and immediately criticized him for his association with "the bad old days" of Reagan/Bush drug czar William Bennett. The article uses two quotes with no context from books (one of which is hearsay), indicating that in some cases Walters supports longer sentences and that he thinks drug use should be stigmatized. It then quotes the executive director of the drug reform group NORML, who hypothesizes that under Walters it is "unlikely that a higher percentage of the drug office's $22 billion budget would be spent on treatment and education."

The L.A. Times took the same tack in an editorial yesterday, using virtually no evidence to back up its argument. It leads off by noting that Walters "once told Congress that it should yank all prescription privileges from doctors who recommend medical marijuana for their patients" - controversial perhaps, but consistent with federal law. Having cited only that one piece of evidence, the Times calls Walters a "baffling" choice and concludes that he clearly does not understand the importance of treatment and education.

Surprisingly enough, it is the Wall Street Journal that we have to turn to for balanced thinking and actual evidence in the case of Walters. Bill Bennett, Walters's former boss, argues in an op-ed yesterday that the case against Walters is actually an argument for legalization. Bennett goes on to cite evidence supporting his claim that the drug war is not a failure. While some of Bennett's statistics are somewhat misleading, he does use real figures and make a cogent argument, something most of Walters' opponents have not bothered to do. Perhaps most notably, though, Bennett states that "effective treatment and strong prevention efforts" must continue. Quite an interesting quote, given that Salon painted Walters' association with Bennett as clear evidence that he has no interest in reducing demand.

It's clear that some members of the media are demonstrating their anti-drug war biases. That may be a valid position, but it's no excuse for attacking a Cabinet nominee on flimsy bits of evidence and decades-old quotes taken out of context. Here's a crazy idea: before the media starts ideological attacks, it should take the time to find out what the nominee and his supporters actually think.

5/16 - Brendan: Hatch ups the rhetoric (permanent link)
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As the National Review first reported yesterday, Hatch has taken a stand against any investigation of Olson's statements in a letter to Patrick Leahy: "I do not see any issues surrounding the responsiveness of Mr. Olson's answers to questions posed by the Committee and see no reason to further delay consideration of his nomination." And, he has started to use much more inflammatory rhetoric:

[T]here is a growing public perception that the delay and partisan rancor ... is an effort to seek retribution for the results of the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore, which Mr. Olson skillfully and successfully argued. (Washington Post)

There is no excuse for treating a man the way they (Democrats) are. (Reuters)

5/15 - Brendan: Hatch's mean Clinton impression (permanent link)
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Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post wrote another story on the Ted Olson controversy. Check this out:

Douglas Cox, Olson's law partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and a spokesman for Olson, said the dispute over Olson's testimony amounts to "just a word game." The senior Hatch aide repeated this view, quoting Hatch as saying, "It comes down to what the definition of the Arkansas Project is."

The Cox/Hatch argument is based on a legitimate point - namely, that not all of the American Spectator's anti-Clinton activities were part of the Arkansas Project. But Hatch and Cox are trying to use that distinction to define away real questions about Olson's testimony. Olson issued clear denials, and then was forced to retract them on several points.

Also, compare Hatch's statement and his refusal to investigate Olson's parsing with his take on Clinton's use of language in 1998:

Hatch also said Clinton needed to end the "parsing" of language over the nature of his affair with former intern Lewinsky, wording that is at the heart of accusations that he perjured himself in a deposition in the Jones case. ("Senators urge Clinton to correct testimony", Pete Yost, AP, 10/12/98)

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