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