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Posts - July 23-31

7/31 - Bryan: Continuing the Condit spin (permanent link)
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Last Saturday, Josh Marshall wrote a story for Salon detailing the generally disingenuous comparisons being drawn between the Condit-Levy case and the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Marshall also suggests that pundits are using the comparisons to discredit both men at the same time.

The reaction has been quite interesting, providing another illustration of exactly the tactics I outlined in my column of June 23. Yesterday's Best of the Web column on OpinionJournal begins its response to Marshall with allegations that Democrats have set up a double standard:

Clinton's "trumped-up crime"--the underlying offense that led him to lie under oath and obstruct justice, the crimes for which he was impeached--was sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a very serious matter--or so we were told by congressional Democrats who took up Anita Hill's cause in 1991. If they really believed in privacy and fairness, they would have told Hill to take a hike...

The accusation is strikingly similar to those made against feminists by conservative pundits such as Ann Coulter. The column concludes with another bit of what is becoming boilerplate spin in the Condit case, alleging some sort of Democratic Party pathology when it comes to sexual behavior:

Democrats cannot approach the Condit scandal in a principled way for the simple reason that when it comes to sex-related misconduct, they have no principles. Even political expediency is no guide in this case, because the political stakes--a single House seat--are so low. The party's discomfiture over Condit is the result of a process of corruption that Anita Hill began and Bill Clinton consummated.

Note the quick twists of logic that not only make the Condit case a partisan one, but implicates every Democrat through association.

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Related links:
-North goes down in the first (Brendan Nyhan, 7/30)
-Spinning Chandra: Making the Condit Affair Partisan (Bryan Keefer, 7/23)

7/30 - Brendan: North goes down in the first (permanent link)
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Here's a great case study in the difference between a serious argument and the jargon used all too often by pundits and politicians. In one corner, fighting in the blue and orange trunks, we have Spinsanity all star Ben Fritz, whose column today shows how critics of President Bush's foreign policy overstate the differences between the positions of Bush and President Clinton. In the other, we have Oliver "Ollie" North, the former Marine and National Security Council staffer who was at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal. North's syndicated column today on criticism of Bush's foreign policy is, by contrast, a case study in jargon and illogic.

He gets right to the point at the start of his column - liberal Democrats "[broke] records in self-deception" in their criticism of President Bush (he means deception, unless he's alleging that they were trying to deceive themselves). North enumerates sharp criticism of Bush from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden (D-DE), Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and former President Jimmy Carter, and then uses it to criticize Democrats for their assaults and "obvious hypocrisy". Unfortunately, his argument is a mess.

DISSEMBLING INCIDENT #1: Daschle "launched an uncustomary attack on a sitting president's prosecution of foreign policy... Daschle told USA Today [this] as President Bush prepared for meetings in London..."

Assessment: Actually, it's quite customary to criticize a sitting President's foreign policy. Bush made foreign policy a major issue in his campaign against Vice President Al Gore. In fact, North wrote this about President Clinton during Clinton's June 2000 European trip:

We should all hope that this latest (dare we say, last?) boondoggle isn't as costly in prestige and treasure as some others, for it seems that when William The Impeached travels abroad he not only wastes the taxpayers' money, but his visits do more harm than good.

Of course, even though North lacks stature to make the claim, there is a bipartisan tradition of not criticizing the president when he is abroad (which the GOP violated several times during Clinton's term, as Daschle aides pointed out). Also, there is a tradition of bipartisanship in foreign policy during times of crisis. But, again, this has little relationship to what North wrote.

Moreover, North dissembles when he implies that Daschle made his comments to USA Today when Bush was in London. In fact, at the time of the interview, Bush was still in the US - at the time of publication, however, he was in Europe. There was a debate about the meaning of this difference and whether Daschle realized what he was doing, but North refuses to let complexity get in the way of a good story.

UNPROVEN CLAIM #1: "Daschle's complaint that the US is 'isolating itself' is absurd."

Evidence: Bush has met with a number of state leaders, taken several foreign trips, and the G-8 leaders "responded overwhelmingly to his visit."

Assessment: None of this is significant evidence against Daschle's claim. Any President travels, meets with foreign leaders and is greeted warmly by other heads of state. This is a useless metric to measure isolation of the US except in the most extreme cases.

UNPROVEN CLAIM #2: Democratic criticism of Bush's foreign policy is "obvious hypocrisy". North never returns to this charge.

CLAIM OF CLAIRVOYANCY: "[Hillary] Clinton's critique of the Bush administration's Kyoto stand is specious and partisan" (Clinton criticized Bush for "repudiating" the protocol and called on him to renegotiate a more favorable agreement). In a brilliant display of mind-reading, North insists that Clinton "knew" in 1997 that it shouldn't have been signed and "still knows" the Senate won't ratify it.

Evidence: A non-binding resolution on Kyoto in 1997 was voted down 95-0 - because, according to North, it would hurt the US economy and "favor one country over another". No evidence of clairvoyancy provided.

Assessment: North makes a simple but reasonable argument, and then mars it with ridiculous speculation. Also, demerits for jargon elsewhere in the column about Clinton - "After eight years of trying to run the White House, she just can't get over the fact that she's not in charge... this presidential 'want-to-be'..." Clinton is now a senator - she has every right to criticize Bush; North is just (aggresively) speculating about her feelings toward Bush.

JARGON-FILLED ATTACK ON DEMOCRATS: Given the agreement President Bush reached with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss linking missile defense with nuclear weapons reductions, Democrats "should applaud the president. But they aren't. Instead, lacking their own ideas, they blindly abuse him -- and push their party further to the leftward fringes of American politics." This lack of self-criticism, North argues, reflects "a lack of moral courage, an ethical hollowness" in the Democratic Party.

Evidence: "[N]o Democrat" criticized NAACP Chairman Julian Bond for saying Bush's appointees came from the "Taliban wing" of the Republican Party and have a "nearly canine" affection for the Confederacy. And, "not one joined" the five Republicans in Congress who have called for Rep. Gary Condit's (D-CA) resignation. Condit enjoys "universal party support"; the party "[unleashes] its minions to promote two-sided morality -- one private, another public" as it did with Clinton.

Assessment: It is silly to draw sweeping conclusions about the Democratic Party because five GOP House members, and no Democrats, have called for Condit's resignation. That leaves 250+ Republicans in Congress who also have not called for Condit's resignation. There is no evidence that Condit enjoys "universal party support" either - while leading Democrats have not taken as strong stances against Condit as others, every Democrat has condemned his behavior, and many are reportedly growing nervous that they may be hurt politically by Condit.

DISSEMBLING INCIDENT #2: Given the agreement President Bush reached with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss linking missile defense with nuclear weapons reductions, Democrats "should applaud the president. But they aren't." (see above)

Assessment: North is dissembling again. The Washington Post wrote the following after the accord was reached:

In Washington, leaders in both parties praised the agreement... On CNN's "Late Edition," Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said, "The president today, in his agreement with Putin, seems to be saying, 'Okay, if he's agreeing [that] he's going to sit down and talk . . . about how to move beyond the treaty,' implicit in that is, 'I'm not going to walk away in the meantime.'"

If North is arguing that Democrats should stop criticizing Bush altogether, then his formulation is technically true, but irrelevant. Reaching an accord to set up a negotiation does not make all criticism of Bush's foreign policy illegitimate.

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Related links:
-Double Standards and Spin: Liberal Attacks on Bush's Foreign Policy (Ben Fritz, 7/30)
-Spinning Chandra: Making the Condit Affair Partisan (Bryan Keefer, 7/23)
-Julian Bond crosses the line again (Brendan Nyhan, 7/10)

7/27 - Brendan: Daschle-bashing on the national radar screen (permanent link)
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A Washington Post article today on Tom Daschle mentions Rush Limbaugh's analogy between Daschle and Satan, which was first reported here and later picked up by Hotline Scoop and The Hotline's Last Call newsletter. But it gives short shrift to the systematic and vitriolic nature of the attack on Daschle, saying only that "[d]emonizing the opposition ... is a time honored tradition in politics". The Hotline rightly questions this today, running quotes from Lancaster's article under the heading "Calling Opponent The Devil Is An Age Old Washington Game?"

A Congress Daily AM piece evidently goes farther. The Hudson Institute's Marshall Wittman tells the newsletter that "[t]here is a concerted effort -- from [Minority Leader] Trent Lott to [Senator] Larry Craig [R-ID], to [House Majority Whip] Tom DeLay to Rush Limbaugh -- to try to demonize Daschle."

One note along these lines - an article on conservative news/opinion site NewsMax.com reports on a Tom DeLay fundraiser held yesterday in Washington. Limbaugh flew in to speak at the fundraiser and reportedly said the following:

This is a battle for the future of the country. It's a political battle of ideas. We're not here to get along with Tom Daschle because he doesn't want to get along with us. He's out of control. We are here to defeat Tom Daschle!

As always, we believe in tough but fair criticism. There's no question Daschle should be subject to much of that; it's systematic demonization (in Limbaugh's case, literal demonization) that we have a problem with.

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Related links:
-Limbaugh's Daschle "devil analogy" (Brendan Nyhan, 7/21)
-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)

7/27 - Brendan: Another liberal cheap shot against Bush (permanent link)
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Ian Williams's piece on Salon.com today attacking the Bush administration's foreign policy is an example of the smug liberalism often seen on the site. Titled "Kooks 'R' Us", it takes a very real shift in foreign policy - President Bush's decreased trust in, and willingness to sign on to, international treaties relative to President Clinton - and turns it into an appeal to liberal readers' existing perceptions of Bush as an extremist.

Williams attempts to associate Bush with a small Utah town that passed an ordinance against the United Nations; suggests that the Bush administration is somehow criminal ("With behavior like this, it is not surprising that the Bush administration is also trying to 'unsign' the convention setting up the International Criminal Court"); and tries to stick a label on members of the administration's foreign policy team ("the black helicopter-Star Wars crowd around Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton").

There are serious arguments behind the Bush team's actions - to his credit, Williams deals with them somewhat directly at times. It's therefore unfortunate that he indulges himself (or his editor) with these cheap shots.

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Related links:
-Kyoto cheap shots at Bush (Brendan Nyhan, 7/24)

7/26 - Bryan: Faking consensus and framing tradeoffs on Social Security privatization (permanent link)
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Two editorials today illustrate how both those for and against private Social Security accounts are trying to spin the debate.

On the pro-privatization side are Senators John Breaux (D-LA) and Judd Gregg (R-NH). They write in an op-ed in today's Washington Post that "Washington has a dirty little secret: When it comes to reforming Social Security, Republicans and Democrats aren't as far apart as they want you to believe." The piece argues that there is a bipartisan consensus both with regards to what needs to be done to the system and how to do it:

Over the past few weeks we proved that we cannot agree on whether real assets even exist in the Social Security trust fund. Finally, with the release of the interim report of the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, the latest battle that divides is over the severity of Social Security's problems. . . .
While the debate rages as to whether personal accounts should be above or within Social Security, most understand that personal accounts are a vital tool for all Americans to create wealth. Furthermore, there is general agreement on the size of these personal accounts, which should be administered like the Thrift Savings Plan available to all federal employees, including members of Congress.

First the authors distort the nature of the Social Security Trust Fund, which contains government bonds. This argument is quickly becoming standard spin: though the Trust Fund does not contain cash, the bonds will, presumably, be redeemed by the government when Social Security begins running a deficit (in 2016 or a few years later).

Second, the authors intentionally understate the size and nature of disagreements about private accounts. This rhetoric allows them to close down debate on the issue, delegitimizing criticism of private accounts. This is an unfair attempt to foreclose discussion on an issue of tremendous national importance.

Meanwhile, in a New York Times op-ed, National Urban League President Hugh Price and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond use a little deceptive framing to make their case. They provide a lucid discussion of how the current Social Security works for African-Americans, who have slightly shorter life expectancies than whites from age 65 on, but who benefit disproportionately from the disability and survivor's benefits the system provides. Yet they frame the debate over financing a transition to private accounts as one over whether or not to cut these parts of the system: "Because privatization proposals would divert large amounts of money from the current system, it's unclear just how these survivor and disability benefits would continue to be financed." The tradeoffs in Social Security financing are much more complex than that; this is an example of subtle framing in an otherwise well-reasoned article that adds nothing to the argument.

A footnote: For those looking for a good summary of how both sides are framing privatization, a Washington Post editorial today provides a very well-balanced review of the spin.

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Related links:
-Social Security report spin (Ben Fritz, 7/19)
-Limbaugh deceptive on Social Security (Brendan Nyhan, 7/10)

7/25 - Bryan: Opinion Journal spins Genoa protests (permanent link)
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In two vicious editorials on Monday and Tuesday, Opinion Journal (the online opinion arm of the Wall Street Journal) attacked protestors at the G8 meeting in Genoa, Italy with a combination of name calling and straw-man reasoning.

The first piece, an unsigned editorial from July 23, labels the protestors "antiglobalization" and calls the demonstrations an "anarchic frenzy" in the very first sentence. It continues by lumping both violent and non-violent protestors together, claiming "personal and political sympathy for thugs dressed up like protestors only encourages the kind of violence we witnessed in Genoa," then attempts to associate President Clinton with the violence: "Bill Clinton, who was not called 'Slick Willy' for nothing, though it a good idea to legitimize the protestors [in Seattle] . . .They repaid him by trashing Seattle and any hope of new negotiations on freer trade." The editorial is both blurring the some/all distinction (a classic rhetorical trick) and creating an intense, mutually damaging emotional distinction between Clinton and violent protestors.

This is classic spin on protests at trade meetings: The violent minority of protestors get the media coverage, the nonviolent protestors don't. And the violence makes it easy to lump all protestors together and condemn them, when in reality the protests are far more complicated.

The spin continued on Tuesday with an op-ed by Tunku Varadarajan called "Globaloney on a Roll." It sets up the same straw man in the second paragraph:

What I was also wondering - in addition to why the Italian policeman who shot a rioter in self-defense has been charged with manslaughter, instead of being feted on national television - was what do these protestors want? Their placards say that they are against "globalization," and indeed, many of the protestors who were on TV invoked that word with a venomous relish.

Varadarajan continues by refining the straw man, claming "The more sentient among them, it seems, derive their inspiration from a book called 'Empire," a book which argues "the exploiters have no national epicenter anymore, and that the entire world is [the exploiters'] 'empire.'" Here again we see the protestors grouped into a single, violent whole, then criticized for an oversimplified version of their beliefs. Note also how the word "seems" allows the author to elide the distinction without ever making a reasoned argument.

Varadarajan saves the choicest attack for his final three sentences: "In effect, [the protestors] are not against globalization at all, just against the capitalist version of it. Wasn't that what the Socialist International was all about? Or am I missing something here?" Pounding away at his straw man, Varadarajan has managed to twist the protestors into Communists.

Globalization - the means through which it should be accomplished and the degree to which it should be pursued - is one of the most important issues in contemporary politics. While no one can condone the violence of some of the protestors, it is unfair to paint them all as anarchists and Communists and dismiss the views of those with reservations about globalization with cheap rhetorical devices. There is a genuine debate to be had over globalization, but neither throwing rocks nor hurling invective will contribute.

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Related links:
-"Global Apartheid" (Bryan Keefer, 6/25)
-Spin and Violence in Quebec City (Ben Fritz, 5/7)

7/24 - Brendan: Kyoto cheap shots at Bush (permanent link)
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As President Bush's approval numbers have slid downward, some pundits have been emboldened to take cheap shots, especially at his opposition to the Kyoto protocol to reduce carbion dioxide emissions. Recent pieces by Bianca Jagger in The Observer (a British newspaper) and Derrick Z. Jackson in the Boston Globe are a case in point.

Jagger's screed

Jagger attacks a straw man throughout her piece. First she asks why Bush has "embarked on a dangerous journey" by "[walking] away from his international obligations". Her "answer" is "corporate payback", the "defining trait" of Bush's administration. She construes the "message" of his opposition to Kyoto as "'US corporations have the right to pollute the entire planet. The people and the environment don't matter'" (note the single quotes designed to obliquely attribute this nonsense to Bush).

Her argument that Bush's decision was driven by corporate interests includes this insightful rhetorical question: "Is Bush aware that we face a life-threatening outcome if Kyoto is not ratified?"

It is, of course, possible that Bush honestly believes that the tradeoffs of Kyoto as he sees them aren't favorable to American interests (in fact, it's likely). But that possibility is evidently too complex; Jagger prefers to attribute simplistic motivations to Bush to paint him as a corporate bad guy.

Jackson's jargon

If you thought that was bad, get ready for Derrick Z. Jackson's more complex jargon. Jackson creates an extended analogy between Bush's negotiations with other countries on global warming and a federal treaty agent who in 1784 told delegates negotiating with the Iroquois "to dispense with any pretense of negotiating with the Indians as equal human beings." Jackson goes on to detail how that "advice turned the treaty meeting into an ambush," and helped create a pattern of dishonest negotiation with other tribes.

That strategy "worked well to steal this continent for European Americans," Jackson writes. "How would it work to exploit the whole planet? It seems that Bush is trying to find that out." Again, Jackson, like Jagger, caricatures Bush. It's especially reprehensible to compare America's dark history with Native Americans to a position on an international environmental treaty. But Jackson isn't done yet:

When a young United States would not accept anything it felt was a threat, the result was the extermination of Indians and the enslavement of Africans. The young presidency of George Bush, from forcing the carbon monoxide of American cigarettes into South Korea to forcing the rest of the planet to accept the carbon dioxide of our cars, has shown that not even the air inside and outside our lungs will stand in his way.

Note the bizarre logic of analogizing between the perceived threat of Native Americans on the Western frontier and an environmental treaty. (Jackson tosses in the red herring of African slaves for emotional effect - why were they a threat to the US in Africa? What about the slaves brought to the colonies before the formation of the US?)

Jagger and Jackson would do much to raise the level of debate by making logical, fair arguments. These don't make the cut.

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Related links:
-Bush pre-spins European critics (Ben Fritz, 6/12)
-Missile defense (Brendan Nyhan, 5/3)
-The Rhetoric of Uncertainty (Bryan Keefer, 4/30)

7/23 - Ben: Jackson's red herring discrimination charges (permanent link)
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In his July 20 syndicated column, Jesse Jackson makes a number of good points about arguments for President Bush's faith-based charities proposal, including a few that could have come out of Spinsanity's mouth (or keyboard). Near the end of his column entitled "Subsidized Discrimination," however, Jackson descends into hyperbole and unwarranted spin just as bad as that he is criticizing.

"The funding of black churches is the bait," Jackson charges. "The hook is massive federal subsidies for Bob Jones University and the whole swath of racially biased churches and institutions that grew up in the South after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation."

Jackson goes on to say:

Segregationists have been trying for years to get federal money for these discriminatory institutions. Bush's Charitable Choice may be their most ingenious device to do so.
And that wouldn't be surprising in an administration stocked with people, as NAACP Chair Julian Bond suggested, with a bizarre affection for the Confederacy, and a long record of opposing civil rights programs.

These charges are red herrings for a number of reasons. The main concern about discrimination under the Bush proposal is that it would exempt churches from state and local discrimination laws that prohibit discrimination in hiring against gays and lesbians.

Furthermore, Jackson clearly brings up Bob Jones University only to raise fears amongst his readers who know that Bush spoke at the school, which bans interracial dating. Bob Jones, however, is an educational institution, not a religious one that engages in social services.

Perhaps the most outrageous spin from Jackson, however, is saying that the Bush administration is "stocked with people" with a "bizarre affection for the Confederacy." Although it was pointed out that Attorney General John Ashcroft once gave an interview to a pro-Confederate magazine called Southern Partisan, there is absolutely no evidence to support the accusation that the Bush Administration is "stocked" with people who have such affections. Note how Jackson uses the vague term "stocked" instead of saying roughly how many, and sources the allegation to Julian Bond in order to try to avoid being responsible for the accusation.

Such tricks don't excuse Jackson's irresponsible rhetoric, however. His inappropriate and unsupported accusations ruin an otherwise fine article, and should make Reverend Jackson ashamed.

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Related links:
-Julian Bond crosses the line again (Brendan Nyhan, 7/10)

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