Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
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Posts - July 16-22

7/21 - Brendan: Limbaugh's Daschle "devil analogy" (permanent link)
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Rush Limbaugh, fresh from signing the most lucrative contract in radio history, pushed his brand of aggressive, jargon-filled talk radio to a new level Friday with an unprecedented attack on Tom Daschle, the Senate Majority Leader. Going far beyond his usual "'Puff' Daschle" routine, Limbaugh drew an extended "analogy" between Tom Daschle and Satan:

How many different versions of Satan, the devil, have you seen in your life? I mean, the comic book devil with the red face and the horns, seen that one. We've seen the Satanic devil of the horror films. We've seen the devil portrayed as just an average man, a human being, in the movie "Rosemary's Baby". We've seen the comic devil of TV shows. We've even seen the smooth, tempting devil in Hollywood moves. Is Tom Daschle simply another way to portray a devil?...
Folks, look: Is he so laid back? Is he so soft-spoken? Is Daschle so friendly? You tell me. Remember what Daschle said when he became the Senate Majority Leader? He blathered on about bipartisanship and working with the President and how he came to the job with humility and how he realized now that as Majority Leader his responsibilities were different - that he had to work to bring competing sides together for the good of the American people. And from that day forward he's been on TV just about every day doing everything he can to keep the people of this country divided.
There is no desire on Daschle's part to bring people together. There certainly is no bipartisanship flowing through his veins, nor is he leading any bipartisan effort. There is no working with the President of any of this. He's criticizing Bush, he's attempting to further the notion that Bush is illegitimate, incompetent, unintelligent. He tries to block the President every day, he downgrades the President every day and he devalues the - he tries to - every day, folks. It's his job - every day. His job is not about doing good things for the country. His job is in his mind is simply about destroying George W. Bush for pure political purpose. It's totally personal. It is the politics of personal destruction with Tom Daschle, hidden behind this laid-back, soft-spoken, so friendly demeanor.
Let me ask you this: He says he wants to work with the President - what would he be doing if he didn't want to work with the President? Can you imagine if his objective - stated objective - was to oppose the President? How would it be any different from his current behavior? Just yesterday, as Bush winged his way to Europe on a crucial mission to lead our allies into the 21st century, with Europe's flagging economy, talking about mutual defense in the 21st century, realistic environmental solutions, solutions for world poverty, not ths stupid Kyoto stuff and not allowing the United States to be robbed blind by the UN and the poor nations of the world, up pops "El Diablo", Tom Daschle, and his devilish deviltry, claiming that George Bush is incompetent, criticizing Bush at the very moment he is engaging in these efforts to improve our relationship with these world leaders.
He's, um, no, I went through the routine. Let me stretch this so-called devil analogy a little bit further. I have to take a break here because it goes on a little while, but stick with me because I want to analogize this a little bit more when we come back - because this guy is getting away with a public media persona that is totally 180 degrees out of phase of who he really is and what he's really doing. [goes to break]
[coming out of the break - Limbaugh sings along to "Devil in a Blue Dress"] Mitch Rider, the Detroit Wheels, Devil in a Blue Dress, as we continue our devil analogy with Tom Daschle. Hang in there folks. Now don't go bonkers - the devil comes in many disguises as we all know.
Let me stretch this analogy just a little bit farther. What would your reaction be if I were to say that I think Daschle has cast a spell on the media? [complaining voice] "Oh no, Rush, not that". Why? Let me ask you this: Why would the media decide that Tom Daschle is Co-President? They pretty much have made Daschle Co-President. Every day we get Tom Daschle and what he thinks of what's going on in the ountry, what he thinks ought to happen. His criticisms - personal, mostly, substantive, rarely, but all personal. So what? He's the Senate Majority Leader? Yip yip yip yip yahoo. Is he as important as the Speaker of the House? Why does he get face time every day and Denny Hastert doesn't? Who's more important?

For more, check out the transcript I created of the whole devil analogy (1160 words) and an article based on Limbaugh's comments at RushLimbaugh.com.

This is state of the art jargon. Limbaugh is openly comparing Daschle to the devil for no other reason than to incite anger in his listeners. The devil is an extremely powerful concept, maybe one of the most potent in Western society. There is no legitimate justification for this kind of rhetoric, which is why Limbaugh has set up plausible deniability by framing the monologue above as an "analogy" and a "routine". If questioned, he will almost surely deny that he was serious and instead claim that he was just trying to make a point about Daschle's partisanship.

Take note of the way the attack against Daschle is proceeding. In April, Limbaugh introduced the dehumanizing "Puff" nickname, which is now widely used among grassroots conservatives (we routinely get visitors from search engines who search for "Tom Puff Daschle" or "Puff Daschle"). Since then, he and others have pounded away at Daschle's "partisanship" for not going along with President Bush. Now, Limbaugh is defining Daschle's opposition to Bush as more and more personal, leveraging criticism of Daschle's recent comments about Bush, which the Majority Leader made just before the president left for Europe. The administration managed to criticize Daschle without comparing him to the devil - why can't Limbaugh?

This will not be the first time Limbaugh has crossed the line. We have criticized him here in the past for his jargon-filled attacks on Daschle (see the related links below), as has Chris Mooney of the American Prospect. But this Satan comparison debases our discourse at a much more profound level. Limbaugh deserves swift criticism from across the political spectrum.

Update 7/23 6:32 PM EST: Today, Limbaugh called Daschle "El Diablo" (he used the term once on Friday as well), saying that is "our new title for him". A reader argued that Limbaugh created the nickname to create controversy and draw attention to what he perceives as Daschle's partisanship. I recognized from the beginning that this was likely, but our purpose here isn't to speculate about intentions to that extent - it's to hold people accountable for using manipulative rhetoric regardless of why they use it.

Related links:
-Coordinated Daschle attack admitted (Brendan Nyhan, 6/28)
-The Wall Street Journal and Tom Daschle (Ben Fritz, 6/2)
-Daschle-bashing 102 (Bryan Keefer, 5/30)
-The illegitimacy attack / Daschle-bashing (Brendan Nyhan, 5/25)
-Jeffords war of words (Bryan Keefer, 5/24)
-Democrats are wrong on arsenic (Brendan Nyhan, 4/30)
-Limbaugh on the warpath (Brendan Nyhan, 4/30)

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7/19 - Ben: Social Security report spin (permanent link)
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A draft report (144K PDF) by a commission appointed by President Bush to examine the Social Security system has not only started generating spin from politicians on both sides, but also put out some of its own.

Unsurprisingly, the commission, which was appointed by Bush to study privatization, came out with dire warnings about the Social Security system's financial future. According to Reuters, it framed that future like this:

Today's workers are not accumulating financial assets for the future. Workers "invest" their payroll taxes not in financial assets but in the willingness of future politicians to tax future workers to pay future benefits.

Notice the triple repeat of the word "future," attempting each time to make the payment of Social Security benefits seem more and more conditional and, thus, unlikely. Notice also how the report frames the payment of Social Security benefits as politicians taxing workers to pay benefits. This phrasing makes the way Social Security has always worked - taxes funding current benefits - seem very unpalatable, since few people like it when politicians tax workers. It's also only one way of framing the issue, since Social Security benefits could also be funded by cutting other programs, changing the structure of the Social Security system, or the government borrowing money when the Baby Boomers swell the senior population.

Some opponents of Social Security privatization chose not to take on the substance of the report, instead immediately trying to make it seem as if it has no substance. Rep. Robert Matsui (D-CA), for instance, said, "This report is issued only for one purpose and that is to frighten the American public." Matsui surely knows, however, that many experts think Social Security's financial future is in question, and that there are many legitimate reasons for this study. But if people think the study is meant to scare them, they are unlikely to take it seriously.

Not to be outdone, though, Bush spokesman Jim Wilkinson turned on his own spin using the common Bush tactic of being above the fray, which Brendan has previously analyzed, to avoid the argument. "The president wants a solution," Wilkinson is quoted as saying in an AP article. "The opponents of reform want a political issue." Of course, calling those who oppose Bush on this issue "opponents of reform" who only want "a political issue" is a quick and easy way to delegitimize all of their concerns.

And so a report misleadingly frames Social Security, a Democrat says Republicans are trying to scare the public, and a Republican says Democrats want a political issue, not a solution. Hopes for a rational debate about the future of Social Security are not looking good.

Related links:
-Limbaugh deceptive on Social Security (Brendan Nyhan, 7/10)

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7/19 - Brendan: The response to my Coulter column (permanent link)
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My column on Ann Coulter has prompted a lot of debate on Internet message boards, including a pretty impressive outpouring of vitriol.

The main rational criticism was that I don't refute Coulter's specific arguments. By my count at least twelve posters in the FreeRepublic.com thread made arguments along these lines, along with two on a St. Petersburg Times bulletin board. The fact that my article focused on how Coulter writes rather than what she writes about was used as leverage to claim that my whole article is therefore invalid:

Try again Brendan! Only this time, factually refute her rhetoric...or shut up!

Several posters specifically focused on my criticism of Coulter for repeatedly bringing up and then attacking hated liberals like President Clinton and Ted Kennedy to rile up her readers:

Ok... so this author pulls every single negative editorial comment Ann has made recently. Are any of them wrong? Is Ted Kennedy not an adulterous drunk? Is Bill Clinton not a pervert or a celebrated, known felon?

These posters, unfortunately, missed the point. I obviously can't refute all of her columns this year in 1200 words - and that wasn't my goal. Moreover, the truth about Kennedy or Clinton, as I pointed out, is irrelevant to my argument about the way Coulter expresses her views. You can imagine any number of things that would be inflammatory to write about in certain ways, even if they're true. For example, the Vichy regime during World War II in France - which undoubtedly did exist - is often brought up in an emotional and often inappropriate way to demean the French.

Even when Coulter defenders on FreeRepublic.com acknowledged that Coulter uses irresponsible rhetoric, most agreed that it's justifiable because the other side does it:

What a whining sore loser. Liberals love dishing out inflammatory rhetoric but can't take it.
Coulter regularly takes all the rhetorical and political devices of the left, and throws them back in their faces -- with some sand added. Boy, they just can't stand it, can they?

Sadly, the obligation many people feel to use rhetoric that respects the norms of civic discourse is rapidly eroding. Discussion of that obligation in the thread turned into finger-pointing at liberals for their rhetorical faults and warnings about what will happen if conservatives don't use inflammatory rhetoric.

The thread itself provided some classic examples of scary aggressive rhetoric:

That is the way you win with these fools...

You get in the commies faces

(formatting in original)
I see her new book and it will have a theme. How to defeat little liberal commies. Kinda a war book on defeating these leftist fools.
Unfortunately the left has no conscience and will do anything to advance their agenda, including violence. If we don't use the same tactics we will lose plain and simple. It is a war... and their will be casualties.

All this irrational rhetoric is depressing, but we should still be hopeful for the future. The fantastic response from all of you shows that there is a strong civic core of people who want to bring norms of reason and fairness back to American political debate. We're just going to have to do it one person - and one column - at a time.

Related links:
-Ann Coulter: The Jargon Vanguard (Brendan Nyhan, 7/16) - my column this week

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7/18 - Ben: Dionne gloats on military ballots (permanent link)
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With the recent New York Times investigation into President Bush's campaign's possible manipulation of absentee voting laws to maximize his vote count in Florida, tensions - and rhetoric - were sure to heat up. Some of the most over-the-top rhetoric, however, came not from those on the right who may have felt under attack, but a liberal pundit who took the opportunity to gloat.

In his column yesterday in the Washington Post, the left-leaning E.J. Dionne essentially does two things: summarize the Times article and use harmful rhetoric to attack many of those who helped bring Bush to power, even though they were not mentioned in, or even relevant to, the Times' investigation.

Dionne starts the rhetoric off by calling the Florida Supreme Court, which ordered a recount the Gore campaign wanted, "brave," as if the only difference between it and the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the decision, was a matter of courage, instead of differing views of the law. That decision was overturned, Dionne says, by "clever lawyering." Notice how the decision Dionne agrees with is credited to the court, but the one he disagrees with is the fault of lawyers, one of the least popular groups of people in America.

Soon after, Dionne attacks an unfair rhetorical tactic used by the Bush campaign during the recount fight, but instead of sticking to the facts (many of which support his case), he sets up a straw man to take Bush down an extra notch.

Dionne notes that Bush spokesperson Karen Hughes said "No one who aspires to be commander in chief should seek to unfairly deny the votes of the men and women he would seek to command," while Republican governor Marc Racicot stated "I am very sorry to say, but the vice president's lawyers have gone to war in my judgment against the men and women who serve in our armed forces."

Now these were clearly unjustified attacks, especially in light of the Times' finding that Bush wasn't seeking to fairly count the votes of military absentee voters either. Dionne's preface, however, goes beyond that:

But the Bush campaign went a step further, assailing Democrats as unpatriotic and unfit to lead -- and never mind that it was Gore, not Bush, who served in our armed forces in Vietnam.

Notice how Dionne attacks Republicans for calling Democrats "unpatriotic" and "unfit to lead," but doesn't produce quotes using either word. Furthermore, he says Republicans attacked "Democrats," but only produces quotes relevant to then Vice-President Gore. This sets things up perfectly for him, however, to shoot back that Gore served in the U.S. armed forces, unlike Bush (who was in the Texas Air National Guard).

Surely there was enough evidence in the Times report for Dionne to attack Republicans' conduct in the Florida recount without resorting to unfounded attacks and spin. Unfortunately, it seems he couldn't resist.

Related links:
-Recount Reconsiderations (Ben Fritz, 4/17) - analysis of media coverage of the Miami Herald/USA Today recount
-Election 2000 debate re-ignites (Ben Fritz, 6/6) - rhetoric after the release of US Commission on Civil Rights report on the election in Florida
-Intent in the Florida mess (Brendan Nyhan, 6/14) - continuing debate over the US Commission on Civil Rights report

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7/16 - Bryan: Mitch Daniels spins the Medicare Trust Fund (permanent link)
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White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels laid down some pretty heavy spin on "This Week" on Sunday. The issue: Daniels revised the estimate of the total budget surplus downward to a low of $160 billion for fiscal 2001 last week, from an estimated $281 billion in January. The new estimate that includes a $156 billion surplus from Social Security, a $28 billion surplus from Medicare Part 1, and a general revenue deficit of $24 billion. This is the result of both a sagging economy and the recently passed tax cut.

The issue of exactly how the accounting works is tricky, but the general gist of it is this: the Social Security and Medicare Part A surpluses have, in the past, been used to pay down the national debt by buying back treasury bonds. In return, an equal amount of money in the form of IOUs is placed into the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds, on the theory that paying back bondholders is the most efficient use of the extra money. When the programs begin to run deficits (several years in the future), the IOUs will be redeemed either by issuing more bonds or from general revenues.

Here's Daniels responding the a question from Sam Donaldson:

Well, it would be a bookkeek--keeping gimmick to suggest that Medicare is in any jeopardy at all, Sam. Every penny collected for Medicare will be spent on Medicare this year, and $50 billion more from the taxpayers. The Medicare accounting entry that we make will look exactly the same regardless of the size of this year's surplus. There's nothing in that account but the promises that future generations will pay. So, I never made such a statement. You know, we tap these Medicare funds every year. There's no--there's no dispute. They're either going to be tapped to send them to bondholders or they're going to be tapped as--as the first--to pay Medicare's bills, and they only go a part way toward doing that.

Daniels begins by lumping all of the Medicare together (there are several parts, each of which operates financially independently from the others) to claim truthfully, but disingenuously, that the program as a whole has no surplus. Then he belittles the Medicare Trust Fund as "nothing . . . but the promise that future generations will pay" - essentially arguing that the surplus is an accounting fiction. Finally he blurs the distinction between redeeming government debt and spending money through the general revenue stream, saying "we tap these Medicare funds every year."

But Daniels isn't through. In response to an accusation from Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) that the administration is going to have to spend part or all of the Social Security and Medicare surpluses, Daniels responded:

You know, raising four daughters has taught me a little about patience, but I'm starting to lose mine on this issue of Medicare. The point of view that the senator has expressed was described this week by various journalists as 'ridiculous, false, Orwellian, and an attempt to confuse the public, deserving of our contempt.' And let me tell you why. You know, Medicare spends $53 billion more than it takes in. The other bill goes to the general taxpayers. All we do for the future of Medicare is to make an accounting entry of the IOUs that the nation has promised. And the only way to deliver on those promises is to maintain a strong economy, that's in large measure of what the tax cut was about, and to reform Medicare, as the president proposed this week in the interest of a system that can pay its bills and can deliver better health care to Americans. We ought to get off this misleading rhetoric about running out of trust funds when, in fact, we have the second largest surplus in American history. Our concern ought to be with creating jobs, creating income, making sure that future surpluses arrive on schedule.

Daniels appears to be making a Keynesian argument that government should be spending in order to stimulate the economy. But he does so using rhetoric rather than reason. First he labels the Senator's views as, among other things, "Orwellian" - implying that Conrad is somehow intentionally misleading the public. Then he again intentionally confuses the two parts of Medicare and claims that the Trust Fund is nothing more than "an accounting entry." Next comes the semi-Keynesian argument - but it ends with an assertion that spending will "make sure that future surpluses arrive on schedule" (an argument he repeated twice more during the broadcast). Here, Daniels has a legitimate point to make, but he's framing it in a deceptive way because he doesn't want to say he will need to spend money that is perceived, politically, as off limits. Instead, he reverses the accusation that he's spending the surplus and claims he wants to save "future surpluses" - a misleading claim at best. Daniels may well have a valid reason for wanting to spend the Medicare surplus - but you'll never find it in this haze of rhetoric.

Related links:
-Limbaugh deceptive on Social Security (Brendan Nyhan, 7/10)
-Krugman predicts shortfalls, Bush spin (Bryan Keefer, 7/7)
-Bush tax cut costs $1.35 trillion . . . no, $1.8 trillion (Ben Fritz, 6/21)

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