Sunday night Twitter fight: Straw men, then and now

Today’s bill: Jake Tapper vs KarlRove and Jenfidel.  The New York Times has taken notice of a rhetorical habit into which President Obama has fallen, and it touched off quite a row on Twitter today, which I saw mostly from my cell phone.  Does Barack Obama use straw men more than Republicans?  After noting that Democrats whined for eight years about George Bush’s use of them, Obama seems pretty comfortable with the practice, too:

Now that there is a new team at the White House, guess who is knocking down straw men left and right? To listen to President Obama, a veritable army of naysayers has invaded Washington, urging him to sit on his hands at the White House and do nothing to address any of the economic or national security problems facing the country.

“There are those who say these plans are too ambitious, that we should be trying to do less, not more,” Mr. Obama told a town-hall-style meeting in Costa Mesa, Calif., on March 18. “Well, I say our challenges are too large to ignore.”

Mr. Obama did not specify who, exactly, was saying America should ignore its challenges.

Similarly, the next day in Los Angeles, Mr. Obama took on Wall Street and Washington, two of his favorite straw men. “I know some folks in Washington and on Wall Street are saying we should just focus on their problems,” Mr. Obama said. “It would be nice if I could just pick and choose what problems to face, when to face them. So I could say, well, no, I don’t want to deal with the war in Afghanistan right now; I’d prefer not having to deal with climate change right now. And if you could just hold on, even though you don’t have health care, just please wait, because I’ve got other things to do.”

Mr. Obama continued on the offensive against straw men that day in Los Angeles, pointing out that critics told him not to go on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on NBC because “I can’t handle that and the economy at the same time.” Then, his audience primed, he delivered his standard kill line: “Listen, here’s what I say. I say our challenges are too big to ignore.”

One has to marvel at the fact that the NYT was the first major media outlet to note this practice.  Karl Rove pointed out first on his Twitter feed:

Must Read: Helene Coopers’ WH Memo http://tinyurl.com/ogztyc I’m also collecting a list of Obama’s Straw Men on Rove.com. #TCOT

Tapper responded:

@karlrove i agree POTUS fights strawmen too often- but so did President Bush. Did it bother you then? do u acknowledge it?

That got Jenfidel started:

@jaketapper The other instances you called “straw men,” there were actual Democrats (often many) saying that very thing. Bush didn’t do it.

Most of the Twitter fight took place between the latter two; be sure to read through their entire feeds. While I empathize with Jenfidel and agree that the media was a lot tougher on Bush than Obama, Tapper’s closer to the truth.  In fact, everyone uses straw men from time to time, and politicians more often than most.  It’s just too easy to belittle your opposition by using a reductio ad absurdum and replacing their more nuanced arguments with a risible slogan or two.  If that’s how we get “Some here want us to sit on our hands and do nothing” from Obama, then it’s also how we got “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” from Bush about other nations in the war on terror.

The problem for Obama is that repeated use of the straw man reduces credibility.  The fact that Helene Cooper has already collected enough for a feature article after a mere four months on the job demonstrates that Obama is making too much use of a lazy crutch in order to make his argument.  It also undermines his supposed status as a post-partisan moderate; if Obama spends his time mischaracterizing the opposition, then he can’t be much of a post-partisan at all.  It took Bush and his administration eight years to get the list Tapper compiled, which makes Cooper’s article all the more striking for its contrast.

Update: Somehow, I missed Jimmy Bise in that exchange.  Be sure to check out his comments, too.

Update II: Some in the comments object to me calling the “with us/against us” comment a strawman.  Well, in fact some countries opposed our war policies without declaring war against the US or declaring an alliance with the terrorists.  It was a straw man to declare such opposition in and of itself hostility towards the US.  Does that mean I think Bush was wrong in his policies and his public emphasis on them?  No, but it was still a straw man argument.