February 25, 2007

Obama's Weak Speech

Obama made a weak speech in Austin yesterday. I like Obama, and I hope that the weak speech is just a bit of campaign-trail fatigue. I hope he recognizes his mistake and turns around to elevate his tone and retake the high road as he moves on.

Because words matter.

If you educate us, draw our attention to basic truths, challenge us with views we disagree with, make us think about things that we don't think about every day, we will be inspired. If you pander to our preconceptions and tell us what we want to hear, offer clichés that we already think we know, repeat words we hear in the news every day, then we may cheer, but we won't be remember your message.

We can feel the difference. Even if we can't parse the lawyer's distinction between a sound argument and an ad hominem fallacy, we can sense the difference between profound oratory and a cheap shot....

The Weak Quote

Here is the weak quote from Saturday's speech:

We just got a report that Tony Blair, our most stalwart ally in this whole process - when George Bush talks about a coalition, he's basically talking about Tony Blair. And Tony Blair this week announced that they are beginning a phased redeployment, because they recognize that we are no longer in a situation where we can solve the problems of Iraq militarily, that we can only solve them diplomatically, and politically, and people have to come together. Now if Tony Blair can understand that, then why can't George Bush and Dick Cheney understand that?
In fact, Dick Cheney said, well this is all part of the plan, it was a good thing that Tony Blair is withdrawing, even as the administration is preparing to put 20,000 more of our young men and women in. Now keep in mind, this is the same guy that said that we would be greeted as liberators, the same guy who said that we were in the last throes. I'm sure he forecast sun today. When Dick Cheney says it's a good thing, you know that you probably got some big problems.
Now understand that there is a human toll to this....

Why Ad Hominem Doesn't Work

The joke about Cheney is a cheap ad hominem attack, and it really grates. Heidi agrees, saying it's the sort of joke you might make to your buddies. But now that Obama has launched himself onto the world stage, it's not the kind of thing he should say.

Yes, Bush and Cheney may be wrong, ridiculously wrong. But they are not wrong because they are Bush and Cheney. They are wrong because they have had many difficult choices to make, and their judgements happen to have been very wrong.

Why is ad hominem so ineffective?

Ad hominem attacks are sadly common in politics, but they don't work in a democracy. By attacking the person - by saying, basically, Cheney is wrong because he is an idiot, you are not really indicting Cheney. You are indicting the people who put Cheney in power, and you are implying that the job in the White House is easy. By joking about incompetence, you are attacking the voters who voted for Cheney and Bush, and you are trivializing the American institution they occupy.

The right message, and the real story, is that when Cheney won the vice presidency, it looked like he was going to be one of the most experienced and qualified vice presidents we had had in many years. And somehow, despite all this experience, he got it dreadfully wrong. He failed at a very difficult and important job. The situation is not funny, and it is not obvious why it happened or how it could have been predicted. Cheney's missteps are tragic, maybe profound, and maybe there is a lesson to learn there if somebody looks hard enough.

The mistake Obama made on Saturday is that he did not look very hard. He did not draw any new lessons from the Cheney missteps. He just made fun of him, which is really nothing more than a way of criticizing Republican voters. In doing this, he sounds a bit like Hillary.

Let's do better than that Obama!

Posted by David at February 25, 2007 12:23 PM

On Cheney:
How do you know that he failed? Maybe he has largely succeeded in accomplishing what he set out to do.
There are two different kinds of mistakes. One is when a person sets out to do evil and he succeeds in doing evil. That is a moral mistake. Another is when a person sets out to do good and he does evil. That is a different kind of mistake. And both are tragic, but different kinds of tragedy.
David, did you vote for Bush/Cheney in either 2000 or 2004? Is that why you feel that criticisms of Cheney are at the end of the day, criticisms of Republican voters?
To be clear, I do not think that Cheney is simply Darth Vader (and even Darth Vader did not start out on the Dark Side). But I do think that he did consciously and deliberately set out to do a bunch of wrong things, and then, along the way, a whole lot more wrong but unintentional things happened.

Posted by: rev at March 20, 2007 09:11 PM

Voted for Gore and Kerry.

I don't think all criticisms of Republicans are criticisms of the voters. But I do think that when you say "gosh you'd be an idiot to not realize this guy is bad" you are talking down to the electorate.

I also think it is factually incorrect to say that Republican incompetence and evil is a given.

First, it is ridiculous to assert that the administration is willfully evil. Taking leadership in Washington is tough, thankless job, and managing in the wake of 9/11 can't be any easier than normal. If you want to be selfish and greedy in the United States there are far easier ways than running for President. High public office is a job that attracts idealists, both on the right and left, Bush and Cheney included.

Second, Cheney/Wolfowitz/Rumsfeld, I believe, deserve praise for one thing: they were very bold in asserting that we needed to massively re-engage in the Middle East. I happen to agree with the principle that we're better served by actively advocating our American point-of-view around the world, rather than just trying to put a lid on problems.

The failure, as it turns out, was not that these guys were too dumb. The problem was they were too experienced. Cheney and Rumsfeld come from the tradition of "talk is cheap" idealism-free Kissinger realpolitik. They were trained to deeply believe that words are empty, whether they come from Marx or Jesus or Osama bin Laden. Instead, they count troop levels, flows of money, and vulnerability assessments. For these cold-war leaders, idealism is a fluffy luxury for a pre-nuclear world.

But the information-dominated 21st century is different from the nuclear-tipped 20th. In today's world, the power of the message is what matters. Osama Bin Laden does not terrorize by amassing economic power and building a rocket. He terrorizes by amassing an audience and building an ideology.

Cheney's failing was not one of brains or ethics. His failing was that he is a 20th century leader fighting a 21st century war.

Barack Obama's biggest asset, to me, is that he is a 21st century leader. He weilds the power of the message; he knows how it can mobilize the people. In today's world, words are important.

Posted by: David at March 22, 2007 02:13 PM
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