February 21, 2009

AP’s Loven Criticized Bush’s Valid Arguments as ‘Straw Men,’ Silent on Real Obama Examples

JenniferLovenWHCApic2008.jpgThe Associated Press’s Jennifer Loven is now the President of the White House Correspondents Association (picture at right is from the WHCA web site).

Loven was the first person on President Obama’s preselected list of those permitted to ask a question at his February prime-time press briefing. Whether she received this top placement because of her office, or because of her years of George Bush-bashing bias — so strong and obvious that Powerline was moved to dub her a “Democratic Operative” back in 2004 — is an open question.

Loven queried the president as follows:

Earlier today in Indiana you said something striking. You said that this nation could end up in a crisis, without action, that we would be unable to reverse. Can you talk about what you know or what you’re hearing that would lead you to say that our recession might be permanent when others in our history have not? And do you think that you risk losing some credibility or even talking down the economy by using dire language like that?

(Obama actually said “may be unable to reverse,” not “would be.” But I digress.)

Obama’s rambling answer, and the rest of the briefing, should have reminded Loven of what she surely considered a withering critique of Bush three years ago (HT to an e-mailer; bolds are mine). After all, she wrote it:

The President And The Straw Man
(Jennifer Loven, AP)
WASHINGTON, March 18, 2006

….. When the president starts a sentence with “some say” or offers up what “some in Washington” believe, as he is doing more often these days, a rhetorical retort almost assuredly follows.

The device usually is code for Democrats or other White House opponents. In describing what they advocate, Mr. Bush often omits an important nuance or substitutes an extreme stance that bears little resemblance to their actual position.

He typically then says he “strongly disagrees,” conveniently knocking down a straw man of his own making.

Mr. Bush routinely is criticized for dressing up events with a too-rosy glow. But experts in political speech say the straw man device, in which the president makes himself appear entirely reasonable by contrast to supposed “critics,” is just as problematic.

Because the “some” often go unnamed, Mr. Bush can argue that his statements are true in an era of blogs and talk radio. Even so, “‘some’ suggests a number much larger than is actually out there,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

A specialist in presidential rhetoric, Wayne Fields of Washington University in St. Louis, views it as “a bizarre kind of double talk” that abuses the rules of legitimate discussion.

….. “It’s such a phenomenal hole in the national debate that you can have arguments with nonexistent people,” Fields said. “All politicians try to get away with this to a certain extent. What’s striking here is how much this administration rests on a foundation of this kind of stuff.”

Among Bush’s supposed “straw man” statements Loven cited — statements which Loven claimed that “bears little resemblance to (opponents’) actual position(s)” — were these:

  • “There are some really decent people who believe that the federal government ought to be the decider of health care … for all people.”
  • “My opponent and others believe this (War on Terrorism) matter is a matter of intelligence and law enforcement.”
  • “Some say perhaps we ought to just pull out of Iraq. That is foolhardy policy.”
  • “There’s some in America who say, ‘Well, this can’t be true there are still people willing to attack.”‘

Of course, there really were prominent politicians making these statements, as critiques at Powerline, the American Federalist Journal, and the Bookworm Room, among many others (HT Columbia Journalism Review), pointed out at the time. So Bush’s arguments weren’t being directed at people made of straw; they correctly characterized the beliefs of his opponents. As such, they had the distinct advantage of being true.

Barack Obama used the Loven-derided”straw man” rhetorical device quite a few times at the press briefing. Here are a few examples:

  • “And there have been others on the Republican side or the conservative side who said, no matter how much money you spend, nothing makes a difference, so let’s just blow up the public school systems.” (Nice touch with the violent rhetoric. Real classy, Barack — Ed.)
  • “…. although there are some politicians who are arguing that we don’t need a stimulus, there are very few economists who are making that argument.”
  • “Some of the criticisms really are with the basic idea that government should intervene at all in this moment of crisis. You have some people, very sincere, who philosophically just think the government has no business interfering in the marketplace.”

As to the last item, there are indeed “some” economists who have said they prefer doing nothing over passing the stimulus bill, but that’s because of the harm they believe the legislation will cause. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have policy prescriptions involving different forms of “doing something.”

But in a few cases, Obama took his straw men a step further than the Bush examples Loven cited. Using absolutist terms, the President frequently — and unlike Bush, incorrectly — claimed that the arguments of those who disagree with him broached no exceptions. Examples (bolds are mine):

  • “But as we’ve learned very clearly and conclusively over the last eight years, tax cuts alone can’t solve all of our economic problems — especially tax cuts that are targeted to the wealthiest few Americans. We have tried that strategy, time and time again. And it’s only helped lead us to the crisis we face right now.”
  • “Now, maybe philosophically you just don’t think that the federal government should be involved in energy policy. I happen to disagree with that.”
  • “As I said, the one concern I’ve got on the stimulus package, in terms of the debate and listening to some of what’s been said in Congress is that there seems to be a set of folks who — I don’t doubt their sincerity — who just believe that we should do nothing.

The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz couldn’t handle Obama’s rhetorical excess, and called it out by name on the last item I just cited:

Worst of all, Obama engaged in one of the most frustrating rhetorical techniques: The straw-man argument. It wasn’t fair for Obama to repeatedly suggest that the core opposition to his stimulus plan comes from people “who just believe that we should do nothing.” The basic Republican position is considerably more nuanced than that, favoring tax cuts and opposing big-government spending.

Yet we’ve heard not a word from Jennifer Loven about how Obama has (unlike Bush) actually put forth what her go-to “expert” Mr. Fields described as “arguments with nonexistent people,” and how his rhetoric has much more seriously “abuse(d) the rules of legitimate discussion.” I also haven’t seen or heard anything from those who lionized Loven’s “journalism” three years ago. Some examples are cited here at the Columbia Journalism Review; one fan called Loven’s work “a rare but penetrating piece of news analysis.”

Well, why not?

Perhaps Jennifer Loven is worried that husband Roger Ballantine, who “just so happens” to be a former Clinton administration environmental official, a “senior adviser on energy and the environment” for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004, and a leading light (if that’s possible) in the areas of alternative energy and climate change, might have his career or business efforts hampered if she leveled similar criticisms.

Say it ain’t so, Jen.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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