Monday, September 1, 2008

Who makes the case? Judge DePaul makes a ruling.

I'm a litigation attorney, and that frames the way I generally approach political issues. In politics, though, the one-on-one debate isn't as effective as an adversarial legal argument because there isn't a judge there to call bullshit and make you actually argue the same point as your opponents. In this new bloggingheads, Cohen and Loury (indirectly) tackle the question of how to attack the Palin pick. I'm going to judge who's got the better advice for the Obama campaign.

COHEN: "This is someone who is obviously unqualified."
Lawyering Practice Tip: Anytime I submit something to a court, I ALWAYS make sure to remove any hint of the word "obvious." It's argumentative, and the argument is: "You should just know." The corrolary is: "Therefore I should not have to engage in the substantive facts." The argument that things are obvious is always a loser. The unwillingness to engage in the facts undercuts Cohen's critiques right out of the gate, as it's not obvious to me that, based on criteria set by me or criteria set by the Obama campaign, that Palin isn't qualified.

They talk about the Palin stating in response to a press inquiry in 2007 that she hadn't given much thought to Iraq because she's been focused on her governorship.
COHEN: "It had the virtue of being an honest answer. . . rather than get some moronic version of the party line. . . That's the problem with it that it's an honest answer. . . You don't really have a view of the war the country is involved in."
LOURY: That answer is unremarkable for a governor of a small state who wasn't running for president.
Both men discuss their firm belief that it was an honest answer. Both take great pains to point out that Palin is remarkable (so as not to condescend), yet neither addresses the possibility that it's a politically calculated act. It looks like Palin had just won her governor's race with 45% of the vote vs. 44% to her opponent. Neither addresses the possibility that Palin could have been purposefully treading lightly so as not to lose a slim majority (approval ratings don't last forever and Iraq incites the crazies). Cohen asserts that you can prove she doesn't care about Iraq by contrasting her answer to an affirmative answer on a climate question. Palin was the chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Commission, which seems like it would make it more difficult to demur on a climate question. Neither man fully explores the assumptions underlying their arguments, but Loury at least mentions the context.
(slim) ADVANTAGE: Loury.

During this part of the discussion, there was also this.
COHEN: She was not one of these people who thinks there are human sources of climate change. She didn't say I hadn't thought about it very much, but it was obvious. . .
Again with the obvious, plus most judges don't care for assholes.

Loury argues that Democrats shouldn't try to attack her on qualification grounds because it reinforces the Republican culture war theme that casts Democrats as arugula-eating metropolitan snobs. I think he's right, conservatives are always bitching about that. Cohen responds by saying that you can tell this is the case because Dobson and Limbaugh are all over the Palin pick "like stink on shit." He ignores the fact that lots of people listen to and agree with Dobson and Limbaugh. Plus, it's gross.

Loury points out that people are invested in Palin the way people are invested in Obama.
LOURY (paraphrase): Republicans just defined their own niche - fundamentalist pro-life red America red-blooded American girl. She embodies the hopes and dreams of a derogated social group. There are probably comparable numbers of people who will be voting for Obama for the same reasons.
Interestingly, unlike almost all other Democratic analysis I've seen, Loury RIGHTLY gets that Palin is not an appeal to women, but to conservatives!

This is, I think, the most significant part of this debate:
COHEN: When he picked Biden I thought ok, when he was making this decision, somewhere pretty high up on this list in things he wanted from a vp is confidence that the person could do the job as president. . . When I think about what was on McCain's list in making the decision I don't see that it could have been anywhere on this list that she has the qualifications to do the job.
(So much for not condescending.)
LOURY: I have to object. I think its a nonsequitur. 'Obama choice made for decisions that are credible, weighing the well-being of the country high. The McCain reasons for choosing are dishonorable and weigh the choice based on more dishonorable purely partisan motives.' I don't think there's any difference between these campaigns in what they'll do to win. Obama's decision not to participate in public funding was a serious shift. The motivations were "what does it take to win."
Cohen shows a total inability to understand his Republican opponents. (I read a blog recently that theorized that Obama supporters seem not only to want to prove he's a better candidate, but that he's a better person. I wish I could remember who wrote that!) His "McCain is putting the country at risk" argument is not going to convince anyone that doesn't come preloaded with a hefty set of assumptions. It requires you to ignore any tactical political advantage in Biden, but I can think of several (he can attack without dirtying Obama's hands while retaining his regular Joe likeability for the most part, he brings, if not gravitas, then staidness to the ticket. He fills the holes in Obama's resume where people have concerns - they may think that a 28 year Senator isn't about to advise his young friend to be too radical.) These are not assumptions that voters just tuning in are likely to have.

They then discuss a point raised elsewhere (I think first by Begala), that Obama's experience is off the table because 18 million voters thought he had enough, whereas only 1 person has ever expressed confidence in Palin. I don't really understand this point, as Palin obviously hasn't gotten the chance to have the nation vote on her. Does that mean if she ends up as veep they will never question her suitability in the veep role?

OVERALL ARGUMENT: Cohen seems to be saying that she's unqualified and McCain is risking the country unduly by picking her. His whole argument on her qualifications is a condescending assumption that she doesn't think about Iraq and a refusal to deal with the substantive facts of Obama's resume (because he feels that the judgment of Democratic primary voters should suffice). Loury seems to be saying that attacks on qualifications raise questions about Obama and his own criteria for being president which is a losing battle because Obama may be more qualified but he is, after all, running for the top of the ticket. He also points out that separate from the double-standard argument this kind of attack seems to raise, it reinforces a theme prevalent on the right that there is a culture war and that the Democrats don't understand or care about them. He's right about this too.

THE WINNER (In a surprise upset!): REPUBLICANS!
Loury has convinced me that the best way to go after Palin is on the substance of her policies. In a head-to-head, conservative principles are better than modern liberal principles.

So we win.

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