February 25, 2010

Health Care Summit Straw Man Time For The GOP

The President's favorite oratory tactic is to use a straw man argument or a false choice argument. No doubt it's the approach he's going to take at the waste-of-time-and-money health care summit he's about to have with Republicans. Here's what the GOP should do to counteract this approach.

First, a 'quick' explanation of the two insidious debating techniques. 

The Straw Man argument occurs when a person simply ignores another person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position, and then disproves the distortion, rather than the real argument. For example;

President Obama: "a philosophy that says every problem can be solved if only government would step out of the way; that if government were just dismantled, divvied up into tax breaks, and handed out to the wealthiest among us, it would somehow benefit us all. Such knee-jerk disdain for government -- this constant rejection of any common endeavor -- cannot rebuild our levees or our roads or our bridges."

The straw man argument? Karl Rove dissected it perfectly;

During his news conference on Feb. 9, Mr. Obama decried an unnamed faction in the congressional stimulus debate as "a set of folks who -- I don't doubt their sincerity -- who just believe that we should do nothing."

Who were these sincere do-nothings? Every House Republican voted for an alternative stimulus plan, evidence that they wanted to do something. Every Senate Republican -- with the exception of Judd Gregg, who'd just withdrawn his nomination to be Mr. Obama's Commerce secretary and therefore voted "present" -- voted for alternative stimulus proposals.

Well done Mr. Rove.

Next is the False Choice argument, which revolves around the idea of an either-or choice, where other choices beyond A and B exist. president Obama likes to paint the world in terms of extremes - black or white, right or wrong. The world is typically not a binary set of choices.
When two alternatives are presented, they are often, though not always, two extreme points on some spectrum of possibilities. This can lend credence to the larger argument by giving the impression that the options are mutually exclusive, even though they need not be. Furthermore, the options are typically presented as being collectively exhaustive, in which case the fallacy can be overcome, or at least weakened, by considering other possibilities, or perhaps by considering a whole spectrum of possibilities, as in fuzzy logic.

Mark Steyn points out a great example of Obama's false choice approach to political discourse;
Writing in the Chicago Tribune last week, President Obama fell back on one of his favorite rhetorical tics: “But I also know,” he wrote, “that we need not choose between a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism and an oppressive government-run economy. That is a false choice that will not serve our people or any people.”

Really? For the moment, it’s a “false choice” mainly in the sense that he’s not offering it: “a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism” is not on the menu, which leaves “an oppressive government-run economy” as pretty much the only game in town.

Back to the health care summit. President Obama is going to use this summit as a sales pitch and he's going to offer his straw man and false choice arguments to maximum effect for his sound bytes that his still adoring press will spread.

Expect to hear Obama make the following points;

-there has been discord on this health care issue (true, even among Democrats and between the Congress and the Super majority Senate)
-in an effort to break the partisan gridlock, I have come up with a compromise plan (true, in the sense that he supposedly split the difference between differing Democrat proposals. Republicans were still pretty much entirely shut out of the process, until now)
-It's clear that because I split the difference I'm the most post-partisan person in the room (or any room). (I'm not sure how that even remotely qualifies as truth, but it's not really relevant anyway).
-Because I've made this extra-ordinary step and come in to save the day, you all have to support me or else you are clearly against fixing health care. (There's a false choice. If you have a different idea of how to fix it, you are against fixing it? Not true).
-There are some who would prefer we do nothing, some who prefer that the weakest among us go without health care for the sake of corporate health care fat cats - I find that unacceptable. (There's a double! Straw man - 'do nothing' is not the GOP approach. They have offered numerous propositions on fixing health care. And the false choice - do nothing versus Obama's wondrous plan. The fact that he split the difference on two Democrat plans prove there are other choices. Why even have this summit if either one of those were acceptable, signable? Oh yeah, because the Democrat controlled Congress and the Democrat super-majority Senate could not agree on which bill to send to the President.)

Republican Positioning

So what should the GOP do in response? There are reasons to not attend. there are reasons to stir the pot and keep Democrats fighting amongst themselves, exposing their true discord. But I think that because this is going to be a soundbite battle, the GOP has to make sure every possible soundbite that could be used in their own limited exposure (compared to President Obama's), will be used to maximum effect.

Every single Republican speaker should phrase their questions in the way President Obama would. Pose every comment as a question, with a false choice instead or a straw man argument embedded in the comment. And do so in such a way that the media cannot extricate the comment from the false choice. It would turn the President's own methods against him.

Here's a couple of examples.

False Choice

"Mr. President, respectfully, why don't we find cost savings for consumers, instead of by slashing Medicare funding to the bone to pay for new health care benefits, do it directly by allowing insurance competition across state lines?

See how the slashing Medicare is embedded in the middle of the sound bite?

Straw Man

Mr. President you say you want to provide universal access by making health care free for everyone. But is it not true that universal access will mean less doctors per health care consumer, and by the laws of simple supply and demand costs will have to increase?

Okay so that's not completely a straw man argument. I can't help it, I'm a conservative, and I prefer to deal in facts wherever possible. However, the question does not address the cost containment portion of the President's inevitable payment cap for health care providers. So it's not the total picture. So it's a bit of a straw man argument. Behind it though are still facts - if doctors need to see more patients and there aren't more doctors you have to limit access and limit expenditure so there's access caps and there's pay caps. That hurts both supply and demand. But the question makes a great soundbite, and I'd love to hear the President, just once answer a supply and demand question, because it sure seems like hes never heard of the concept.

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