Thursday, September 15, 2011

Our next Great Communicator

Having made something of a study of our current President's rhetoric, I owe some attention to that of the man perhaps likeliest to be our next President, Rick Perry. Time's Richard Stengel and Mark Halperin just posted an interview with Perry. Below, some thoughts on responses revel much about Perry's approach to policy, politics, and the rules and purposes of political discourse.
Now that you’ve been in the race for while, do you feel pressure to temper some of your rhetoric, like calling the Obama administration socialist?

No, I still believe they are socialist. Their policies prove that almost daily. Look, when all the answers emanate from Washington D.C., one size fits all, whether it’s education policy or whether it’s healthcare policy, that is, on its face, socialism.
Let's grant Perry his definition of socialism -- he does have one -- and look at his signature method of characterizing opponents' policies. The Obama administration's education policy is embodied in Race to the Top, which invites states to compete for extra federal funding by submitting their own plans to raise performance according to standards that they propose.  As for healthcare policy: the Affordable Care Act does create a template for states to achieve near-universal coverage by two means: expanded Medicaid, 80-90% financed by the Federal government, and healthcare exchanges composed of private plans that meet minimum coverage standards, made available to citizens via premium subsidies provided by the federal government. But it also grants waivers to the states to design their own plans, as long as they meet basic coverage standards, and Obama has proposed moving up the date for granting such waivers.  In neither case do "all the answers emanate from Washington."  A candidate minimally concerned with veracity would not "temper" the socialism charge with socialism thus defined -- he would eschew it. But that of course implies a by-now-Utopian reality standard for any GOP candidate. Let's move on to Perry's more specific m.o.

But you know there’s concern that you use controversial rhetoric, like calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.”

There may be someone who is an established Republican who circulates in the cocktail circuit that would find some of my rhetoric to be inflammatory or what have you, but I’m really talking to the American citizen out there. I think American citizens are just tired of this political correctness and politicians who are tiptoeing around important issues. They want a decisive leader. I’m comfortable that the rhetoric I have used was both descriptive and spot on. Calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme has been used for years. I don’t think people should be surprised that terminology would be used.

No one gets confused about the point I was making, that we have a system that is now broken. We need to make sure that those on Social Security today — and those approaching it — know without a doubt it will be in place. It will not go away. We’ll have a transitional period for those in mid-career as they’re planning for their retirement. And our young people should be given some options. I don’t know what all of those options need to be yet, but they know instinctively that the program that is there today is not going to be there for them unless there are changes made.

I don’t get particularly concerned that I need to back off from my factual statement that Social Security, as it is structured today, is broken. If you want to call it a Ponzi scheme, if you want to say it’s a criminal enterprise, if you just want to say it’s broken –they all get to the same point. We need, as a country, to have an adult conversation. Don’t try to scare the senior citizens and those who are on Social Security that it’s somehow going to go away with the mean, old heartless Republican.
Let's unpack the assumptions here. 1) A tag like "Ponzi Scheme" for a program that's provided its promised benefits for 70 years is justified primarily because it's "been used for years." 2) If Social Security needs to be reformed in some way, i.e., if it's moderately underfunded under current contribution and benefit formulas, then calling it a Ponzi scheme, a criminal enterprise, or broken are all equally valid -- and characterizing it by such slurs is the basis for an "adult conversation."  3) Republicans who don't share this accuracy standard are confined to the "cocktail circuit" and are outside the circle of "the American citizen," who is presumably perfectly okay with name-calling as a basis for "adult conversation." 4) Those who like to call social security a "criminal enterprise" are not scaring seniors. Those who hold up users of such rhetoric as a danger to Social Security are scaring seniors.
How would you change Social Security? Would you consider private accounts or raising the retirement age?

We are having a national discussion now about a lot of different options: raising the [retirement] age, doing it in a structured way for the younger worker, some options from the standpoint of private accounts — all of those ought to be on the table. The idea that we’re going to write a Social Security reform plan today is a bit of a stretch from my perspective. I have accomplished one of the things that I wanted to do by talking about it. Americans are paying attention.
Assumptions: If a candidate considers a current program in need of reform, smearing it constitutes his whole duty prior to election.  Actual reform plans are for the cocktail circuit -- "the American citizen" needs to know only that the current system is "a criminal enterprise."
What should happen next in Afghanistan?

I think we need to try to move our men and women home as soon as we can. Not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq as well. And we’ve got to continually reassess our objectives. We need to make strategic decisions based on consultation with our military leaders on the ground, rather than just some arbitrary political promises.

Our objective should be clear. We’ve got to support the Afghan national security forces as they transition into the role of being the stable and appropriate force to sustain that country. Our overall objective has to be to serve that process and to drive out those who would do harm to our country. I think we’ve done that in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have substantial ways to continue to put the pressure on the bad guys, if you will, and I don’t think keeping a large force of United States uniform military in Afghanistan for a long period of time is particularly in the interest of the U.S., or for that matter, in Afghani interest.
Translation: 1) The current President has based his policy purely on fulfilling "arbitrary political promises" and didn't trouble himself with consulting military leaders. (Rhetorical principle: smear your opponent by insinuation; impugn his motives  -- see Bernanke, Ben.)  2) My policy will be indistinguishable from the current President's. 

Bonus question: what if the Afghan security forces are never able to "transition into the role of being the stable and appropriate force to sustain the country"? That is, how will you deal with situation you will actually face? How do you make policy when there are no good choices? 

I'd like to continue, but I think I've reached the limits of "fair use" vis-a-vis Time's Swampland.  To sum up, Perry's rules of rhetorical engagement boil down to 1) constantly impugn your opponents' motives by insinuation; 2) shamelessly misrepresent their policies; 3) tag existing federal programs and functions with inflammatory and manifestly inaccurate labels; 4) eschew presenting any specific reform programs for "broken" programs; and 5) when you do offer policy prescriptions, ignore any likely obstacles to their success.

A democracy that allows such a candidate to get anywhere near consideration for its highest office is in danger of not remaining a democracy for long.

Update: Greg Sargent has some interesting context about Perry's escalating war with the GOP establishment, a.k.a. the cocktail circuit.

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