Making Hay Out of Straw Men
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; Page A21
For President Bush, this is the season of the straw man.
It is an ancient debating technique: Caricature your opponent's argument, then knock down the straw man you created. In the 2004 campaign, Bush has been knocking down such phantoms on subjects from Iraq to free trade.
In a speech on May 21 mentioning the importance of integrity in government, business and the military, Bush veered into a challenge to unidentified "people" who practice moral relativism. "It may seem generous and open-minded to say that everybody, on every moral issue, is equally right," Bush said, at Louisiana State University. "But that attitude can also be an excuse for sidestepping life's most important questions."
No doubt. But who's made such arguments? Hannibal Lecter? The White House declined to name names.
On May 19, Bush was asked about a plan by his Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), to halt shipments that are replenishing emergency petroleum reserves. Bush replied by saying we should not empty the reserves -- something nobody in a responsible position has proposed. "The idea of emptying the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would put America in a dangerous position in the war on terror," Bush said. "We're at war."
The president has used a similar technique on the stump, when explaining his decision to go to war in Iraq in light of the subsequent failure to find stockpiles of forbidden weapons. In the typical speech, Bush explains the prewar intelligence indicating Saddam Hussein had such weapons, and then presents in inarguable conclusion: "So I had a choice to make: either trust the word of a madman, or defend America. Given that choice, I will defend America every time."
Missing from that equation is the actual choice Bush confronted: support continued U.N. weapons inspections, or go to war.
On May 4, Bush was discussing the war on terrorism, when he said: "Some say, 'Well, this is just a matter of law enforcement and intelligence.' No, that's not what it is." On May 10, he posited: "The natural tendency for people is to say, oh, let's lay down our arms. But you can't negotiate with these people. . . . Therapy won't work."
It is not clear who makes such arguments, however. All but a few lawmakers in both parties support military action against al Qaeda, and Kerry certainly has not proposed opening talks with Osama bin Laden or putting him on the couch.
Bush is obviously not the first politician to paint his opponents' positions in absurd terms. "Honorable people could disagree about the real choice between tax giveaways to the wealthiest Americans and health care and education for America's families," Kerry has said. "I'm ready for that honest debate."
But Bush has been more active than most in creating phantom opponents: During the 2000 campaign, Bush fought against those who say "it's racist to test" students -- even though his opponent, Al Gore, was saying no such thing.
Recently, though, even some ideological allies have called Bush on his use of straw men. On April 30, for example, Bush was discussing Iraq when he said: "There's a lot of people in the world who don't believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins . . . are a different color than white can self-govern."
The columnist George Will asked who Bush was talking about, then warned of the "swamp one wanders into when trying to deflect doubts about policy by caricaturing and discrediting the doubters." There are some, including in the State Department, who are skeptical about the ability of the United States to spread democracy in the Arab world, but that is a far less sweeping argument than the one Bush knocked down.
In some cases, Bush's straw men are only slight exaggerations of his opponents' policies. "Some say that the federal government ought to run the health care system. I strongly disagree," he said on April 5. Although mainstream Democrats are not proposing a government-run health care system, they do support considerably more federal involvement than Bush does.
On trade, similarly, Bush has said those who disagree with him are isolationists. "There is a temptation in Washington to say the solution to jobs uncertainty is to isolate America from the world," he said on March 25. "It's called economic isolationism, a sense that says, 'Well, we're too pessimistic, we don't want to compete -- as opposed to opening up markets, let's close markets, starting with our own.' " Some lawmakers do favor more trade restrictions than Bush does, but only a few could be called isolationists. There seems to be no end to the crazy positions the straw men take. Indeed, some have argued in favor of deeper recessions. "Some say, 'Well, maybe the recession should have been deeper,' " Bush said last summer. "That bothers me when people say that. You see, a deeper recession would have meant more families would have been out of work."
Now who could argue with that?
The Quotable Bush
"I'm honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein."
-- President Bush, meeting Iraqi amputees at the White House on May 25.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
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