Bush Using Straw-Man Arguments in Speeches

By JENNIFER LOVEN, Associated Press WriterSat Mar 18, 12:52 PM ET

“Some look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude that the war is
lost and not worth another dime or another day,” President Bush said
recently.

Another time he said, “Some say that if you’re Muslim you can’t be free.”

“There are some really decent people,” the president said earlier
this year, “who believe that the federal government ought to be the
decider of health care … for all people.”

Of course, hardly anyone in mainstream political debate has made such assertions.

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, 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.

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, 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.”

Bush has caricatured the other side for years, trying to tilt
legislative debates in his favor or score election-season points with
voters.

Not long after taking office in 2001, Bush pushed for a new
education testing law and began portraying skeptics as opposed to
holding schools accountable.

The chief opposition, however, had nothing to do with the merits of
measuring performance, but rather the cost and intrusiveness of the
proposal.

Campaigning for Republican candidates in the 2002 midterm elections,
the president sought to use the congressional debate over a new
Homeland Security Department against Democrats.

He told at least two audiences that some senators opposing him were
“not interested in the security of the American people.” In reality,
Democrats balked not at creating the department, which Bush himself
first opposed, but at letting agency workers go without the usual civil
service protections.

Running for re-election against Sen. John Kerry in 2004, Bush
frequently used some version of this line to paint his Democratic
opponent as weaker in the fight against terrorism: “My opponent and
others believe this matter is a matter of intelligence and law
enforcement.”

The assertion was called a mischaracterization of Kerry’s views even
by a Republican, Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record) of
Arizona.

Straw men have made more frequent appearances in recent months,
often on national security — once Bush’s strong suit with the public
but at the center of some of his difficulties today. Under fire for a
domestic eavesdropping program, a ports-management deal and the rising
violence in Iraq, Bush now sees his approval ratings hovering around
the lowest of his presidency.

Said Jamieson, “You would expect people to do that as they feel more threatened.”

Last fall, the rhetorical tool became popular with Bush when the
debate heated up over when troops would return from Iraq. “Some say
perhaps we ought to just pull out of Iraq,” he told GOP supporters in
October, echoing similar lines from other speeches. “That is foolhardy
policy.”

Yet even the speediest plan, as advocated by only a few
Democrats, suggested not an immediate drawdown, but one over six
months. Most Democrats were not even arguing for a specific troop
withdrawal timetable.

Recently defending his decision to allow the National Security
Agency to monitor without subpoenas the international communications of
Americans suspected of terrorist ties, Bush has suggested that those
who question the program underestimate the terrorist threat.

“There’s some in America who say, ‘Well, this can’t be true
there are still people willing to attack,'” Bush said during a January
visit to the NSA.

The president has relied on straw men, too, on the topics of
taxes and trade, issues he hopes will work against Democrats in this
fall’s congressional elections.

Usually without targeting Democrats specifically, Bush has
suggested they are big-spenders who want to raise taxes, because most
oppose extending some of his earlier tax cuts, and protectionists who
do not want to open global markets to American goods, when most oppose
free-trade deals that lack protections for labor and the environment.

“Some people believe the answer to this problem is to wall off
our economy from the world,” he said this month in India, talking about
the migration of U.S. jobs overseas. “I strongly disagree.”

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The
information contained in the AP News report may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written
authority of The Associated Press.


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