The president and the straw man

Bush sets him up and knocks him down.

Published March 21, 2006 6:41PM (EST)

Asked this morning about Russ Feingold's censure resolution, George W. Bush said that "during these difficult times," Americans "expect there to be an honest and open debate without needless partisanship." If that's the case -- and we don't doubt that it is -- why won't the president help give the people what they want?

Over the weekend, the Associated Press documented the way in which Bush uses "straw man" arguments in his speeches. When the president says that "some say" or "there are some who believe," an unfair characterization of somebody else's beliefs is sure to follow. "The device usually is code for Democrats or other White House opponents," AP reporter Jennifer Loven wrote. "In describing what they advocate, Bush often omits an important nuance or substitutes an extreme stance that bears little resemblance to their actual position." Having mischaracterized his opponents' arguments, the president "typically then says he 'strongly disagrees' -- conveniently knocking down a straw man of his own making."

Maybe Bush wasn't trying to illustrate Loven's point today at his press conference today, but it sure did seem like it. To hear the president tell it, there are "some in this country" who "don't view the enemy" as the serious threat he does. "I guess they, kind of, view it as an isolated group of people that occasionally kill," Bush explained. "I just don't see it that way. I see them bound by a philosophy with plans and tactics to impose their will on other countries." Likewise, Bush said, when faced with warnings that al-Qaida will use Iraq as a base for destabilizing the Middle East, "maybe some discount those words as, kind of, meaningless propaganda." "I don't," Bush said. "I take them seriously. And I think everyone in government should take them seriously and respond accordingly."

To whom, exactly, was the president referring? Maybe he didn't realize what a threat al-Qaida was back in 2001, but we can't think of a soul "in this country" today who thinks that al-Qaida isn't a serious threat now. And while the president and his aides rushed into Iraq despite warnings that a war there could destabilize the entire Middle East, we can't think of anyone "in the government" today -- except for Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, of course -- who would "discount" the threat that the war in Iraq presents now.

But Bush was just getting started. He said he has a message for "people" who say that the blessings of liberty should only be "for one group of people": You -- whoever you are -- are "denying the basic rights to others." And even when the president named names, he seemed incapable of taking anything other than a caricature approach to the ideas of the opposition. Accusing the Democrats of political cowardice, Bush said he's noticed that "nobody from the Democratic Party has actually stood up and called for getting rid of the terrorist surveillance program."

"You know, if that's what they believe, if people in the party believe that, then they ought to stand up and say it," Bush said. "They ought to stand up and say, 'The tools we're using to protect the American people shouldn't be used.' They ought to take their message to the people and say, 'Vote for me. I promise we're not going to have a terrorist surveillance program.'" But maybe the Democrats haven't said that because that isn't, in fact, what they believe. As Bush knows, any number of Democrats and at least a handful of Republicans have said that the government should continue to monitor the calls of suspected terrorists, but that it should either get warrants in the process, as current law requires, or change the law to make the president's program legal in the future.

Of course, it's possible that the president doesn't know. It's hard to tell what gets into his bubble -- or up to his "perch," as he described it before he thought better of it today. After all, the president seems to have trouble remembering details of even his own views and accomplishments. Asked how he could portray himself as a captain of fiscal restraint when he hasn't vetoed a single spending bill, Bush said he hasn't vetoed any appropriations bills "because they've met the benchmarks we've set." In fact, he signed into law last summer a pork-laden transportation bill that exceeded the "benchmark" he had set. Talking up the war in Afghanistan, Bush said that there was "no such thing as religious freedom" under the Taliban. He didn't mention the plight of Abdul Rahman, a man who may soon be put to death in Kabul for converting from Islam to Christianity. As Bush expressed amazement over the "interesting debate" about "whether or not this country of ours ought to work to spread liberty," he apparently didn't see any reason to recall that he was once on the other side of that debate himself. And as he congratulated himself for being a "a president who's realistic and listens to what the enemy says," he didn't mention that he once excoriated John Kerry for suggesting that he should do just that.

Bush talked repeatedly today about how "realistic" he is. "I'm talking realistically," he said. "Yes, I'm optimistic about being able to achieve a victory," he said, "But I'm also realistic." We don't know who they are, but we're sure that there are some who disagree.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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