Monday, November 19, 2007

Towards better arguments

A standard way to promote candidates one supports is to defend them, or criticize their opponents, with well-considered arguments that stand up to criticism. Once made, a good argument stands on its own, advancing the debate and persuading intelligent readers to join your side. There's another strategy that I hadn't thought of before, but which I suppose has its own perverse appeal: shoot out shoddy arguments and frivolous criticisms so fast that by the time that one is defeated, you've posted another. Go fast enough, and you'll always have at least one argument standing.

This is probably the best way to understand Garance Franke-Ruta's coverage of the Democratic primary on TAPPED. Even though I'd most likely disagree, I'd like to see her make substantial and well-thought-out arguments in favor of nominating Hillary Clinton, because those would advance our understanding of the race and lead to an informative debate. Instead we get Garance's ill-thought-out smears of Hillary Clinton's opponents, presented with airs of journalistic objectivity that are quickly dispelled by their obvious sloppiness.

On Tuesday, in a post titled "Unconstitutional Is Unconstitutional", Garance leapt to attack the constitutionality of Edwards' proposal to take away the health benefits of Congress and top federal officials unless universal health care passed by July 2009. But as no less an authority than Constitutional expert and Obama advisor Cass Sunstein soon observed, unconstitutional wasn't unconstitutional after all -- while the President can't take away health benefits by fiat, it's not implausible to read the 27th amendment as allowing him to strip benefits from Congress by passing legislation. (Rarely noted: if the effective date for ending benefits is pushed into the next term, the Constitutional objections evaporate entirely.) On the phone, Joe Trippi clarified to Garance that a legislative takeaway of benefits was exactly what the Edwards campaign was proposing.

What happened next was bizarre. Garance seized on Trippi's phrasing in the phone call to announce that according to the Edwards campaign, Health coverage is a 'perk' and wrote a long post on how regarding health benefits as perks would be a bad way to start the health care debate. The number of wacky assumptions required for her to make this argument in good faith would be truly staggering -- that an advisor's phrasing of one word in a quick phone conversation with a blogger would be representative of a campaign's overall policy views, that those views would then go front and center into the eventual presidential message strategy, and that ordinary voters be affected more by the Constitutional questions than the sheer populist force of the proposal.

And that's why I don't regard hers as a good-faith argument. Arguments like this are as soon written as they collapse (in this case, when Trippi called back to note that he meant "benefits" by "perks") and GFR's next attack takes their place (in this case, her attempt to turn the failure of her sophistical argument into a dig on the effectiveness of the Edwards campaign: "Sounds like it's been a long day over in Edwards land.")

This has been going on for a while. There was GFR's October discovery that a Democratic PAC trying to prevent Hillary Clinton from winning the nomination was started by an environmentalist who had previously endorsed John Edwards. While Garance seemed to think that this was some kind of scandal, Kate Sheppard immediately responded that there was nothing particularly strange about a Clinton opponent supporting Edwards, and that it was fine for progressive groups "to challenge Clinton's progressive credibility and work to counter what seems to be accepted gospel around these parts on her inevitability." Most of TAPPED's commenters echoed Kate's views.

There's a larger point to be made here. Back in July when I examined her article on Edwards and poorer voters, Garance commented: "As for the specific criticism that I am shilling for a candidate, I will note that I have in no way endorsed Clinton." As subsequent commenters noted, that's no way for bloggers to defend themselves. Our endorsements count for nothing; it's by our writings that you know us. Garance doesn't go around making transparently silly anti-Clinton arguments. She does so against Edwards and occasionally Obama. (And sometimes she writes a gem like Thursday's "twinkling of Hillary Clinton's eye" post) That's why readers of TAPPED regard her as a fervent Clinton supporter, and are justified in doing so.

There's nothing wrong with having a candidate. Mine is John Edwards, and people who have read my political stuff know very well why I support him. I've told them many times. He's the most likely to beat Republicans in a general election, he's willing to forcefully defend progressive positions on issues from poverty to health care to foreign policy, he'd make our party more appealing in downticket races where we need to expand our majorities, and his attention to the tremendous issue of global poverty sets him apart from any major presidential candidate I've ever seen.

For all of her smears on Hillary Clinton's opponents, Garance hasn't come out and told me what's so great about Clinton herself. In this she's kind of like the Clinton campaign, which doesn't have much of a message other than that its victory is inevitable. I'm happy to hear an earnest and good-faith progressive argument for Hillary, and it's something that I was pressing Garance for back in July. (Commenters at Ezra Klein’s blog did more to develop the argument than Garance ever did.) I'm not saying I'd agree, and I'm sure I'd find much to criticize in her argument. But our debate would have a positive impact on the state of public understanding, rather than just delaying Joe Trippi's dinner and requiring TAPPED commenters to debunk yet another smear.


Anonymous said...

I had to go searching for this post after it briefly appeared in my RSS as GFRbage at Klein's House. What happened? Why the removal?

I find it a pretty spot-on post...

Neil Sinhababu said...

Ezra didn't want a post attacking Garance so intensely on his own blog -- he thought it'd make life at the office a lot harder, since she works there with him, and apparently she went ballistic about the post. So he took it down.

Thanks for your support. Basically every comment I've gotten from TAPPED readers has been positive.

Anonymous said...

Well, that's reasonable enough. I wouldn't write a post attacking a coworker; but then, I'm not a professional pundit.

Too bad GFR got mad at Ezra rather than crafting a response to explain the thinking behind her Clinton advocacy.

Anonymous said...


What was the deal with that blogger that John Edwards hired and then fired for her great blood lust for anything christian?

Do you think that is still a cloud over Edwards?

Anonymous said...

This technique is known in anti-creationist circles as the "Gish gallop," after Duane Gish.

Pinko Punko said...


I think this post underscores the point that once all the kids are in the cool kids club, the gloves come off and personal/working relationships start affecting opinions.

When the kids go pro, it's like they start taking books off the shelves in the library secretly.

Not cool