Friday, 26 October 2012

Barry Big Balls! (And the Resurrection of GOP Scare Tactics)

After owning up to his meager initial performance, Barack Obama not only turned up, but was back on form for the remaining Presidential debates. Perhaps remembering that substance is worthless without style, the President mounted a strong offensive, giving us viewers what we really want –good television.

Romney, perhaps mistaking a flash-in-the-pan-performance for inherent talent, looked frazzled during the debates, apparently flummoxed by a participating Obama. Nor did it help Romney that Obama happened to be familiar with the former’s strong belief in the malleability of facts. For instance, when Romney touted the merits of a bipartisan law that bolstered education in Massachusetts, the President quickly reminded him that that law was, in fact, passed in 1993—10 years before Romney took office.

Romney’s campaign, since the early days of the GOP primaries, has been based on making a negative case against Obama. After a decade of war, five years of recession, and a stultified government, change has positioned itself as a stubborn fad in America. So, why not just appropriate the 2008 Obama strategy, lambaste the status quo and espouse change again?

Here are a few reasons why the change routine isn’t as suitable in 2012. Under the W administration we waged two wars, one of which was based on fabricated evidence. (If that’s debatable, then let’s agree to say it was based on gross incompetence, shorn up by an administration comprised of homogenous thinkers). We also saw tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans while government spending rose dramatically, quickly transforming the surplus from the Clinton years in to a deficit. Moreover, continued deregulation in the financial sector precipitated the worst recession since the 1930s, which now requires comprehensive structural reform—something which we have barely begun. The Dow sunk to the low 8000s, signifying diminished investor confidence in US markets. And nevermind the fact that the W administration destroyed the American brand and tarnished our reputation.

Did we need change? Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that we did.

Four years later, the recurring Republican refrain--meant to dismiss Obama with one fell swoop--has been to implore Americans to ask themselves one simple question: are you better off than you were four years ago? Presumably, the GOP is expecting voters to answer in the negative. Is that expectation warranted?

Well, the Dow in up 62% since the day Obama took office. It’s up 97% from its March 2009 low—two months after Obama was inaugurated.  We’ve withdrawn from Iraq and are winding down in Afghanistan. More jobs are being created now than at any point since 2008. Obamacare has been passed and the US will join every other developed country in offering its citizens, even the least well-off, reasonable healthcare. (By the way, compare the GOP rhetoric toward Obamacare to the early GOP rhetoric toward Social Security).

But Obamacare is a socialist anathema and only benefits freeloaders and satan worshippers, right? Allow me recount a personal tale. A few days before the dental tranche of Obamacare kicked in, I was quoted between $800 and $1000 to have my (very painful) impacted wisdom teeth extracted. That figure, by the way, is per tooth. After Obamacare,  I paid a $35 co-pay. Was I one of Paul Ryan’s unemployed ne’er-do-well "takers"? Well, I was between my Bachelor and Masters degree, during which time I was not classified as a student. As a result, I was no longer applicable for my current insurance plan. I guess I was a self absorbed taker then. 

So are we better off? You’re damn right we’re better off. At the end of 2008 the prospect of living like Tusken Raiders seemed very real. How has that slipped from our memories so quickly?

Romney’s strategy is clear. Espouse, utilize and beat the American people to death with straw man arguments. Make a negative case for Obama. Make sure they hate him so much that they go with the lesser of two evils. At least Romney’s valuation of himself is fair.

There is another curious logical fallacy at play in the Romney strategy—the old argumentum verbosum routine. Eh hem? It took me a while to find this gem: “a rhetorical technique that tries to persuade by overwhelming those considering an argument with such a volume of material that the argument sounds plausible, superficially appears to be well-researched, and it is so laborious to untangle and check supporting facts that the argument might be allowed to slide by unchallenged.” John Kerry also jabbed Romney for this, referring to him as the Wikipedia candidate, presumably due to Romney’s penchant for constantly throwing out a jumble of information, a good amount of which is incorrect. I think this comparison is unfair to Wikipedia.

The highlight of the final Presidential debate was, of course, the Obama zinger that is tsunami-ing through Twitter. Aaron Sorkin himself couldn’t have written a better come-back. However, the President’s “horses and bayonets” quote--which by the way has seriously upset the bayonet lobby--perhaps overshadowed the dark alley down which Romney has apparently insisted on taking us…again.

GOP fear mongering is back.  Here’s what Romney said to prompt to the H&B quip.

“Our Navy is smaller than it's been since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now down to 285. We’re heading down to the low two-hundreds if we go down to sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our navy. Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since it was founded in 1947. Since FDR we’ve always had the strategy that we could fight in two conflicts at once. Now we’re changing to one conflict. This in my view is the highest responsibility of the President of the United States, which is to maintain the safety of the American people. And I will not cut our military budget by $1 trillion…that in my view is making our future less certain and less secure.”

Romney’s statement epitomizes the popular strategy of presenting facts in a misrepresentative way (a la Dr. Ferguson) in order to deceive the public. Politifact asked experts in the field to comment on Romney’s take on the military. The verdict was that Romney’s absolute-numbers-assessment is “an imperfect measure of military strength.” Here are some excerpts from the Politifact article:

Counting the number of ships or aircraft is not a good measurement of defense strength because their capabilities have increased dramatically in recent decades.

- William W. Stueck, a historian at the University of Georgia

Although the overall force level is lower, the capabilities of the current force in almost all respects far exceed that of the huge Air Force of the 1950s. 
- Ruehrmund and Bowie, in an article published by the Mitchell Institute, a research and analysis organization founded by the Air Force Association.

It took dozens of planes and literally hundreds of bombs to destroy a single target because they were so inaccurate. Thanks to smart bombs and stealthy aircraft, today it only takes a single plane and often a single bomb to destroy a target.
- Todd Harrison, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

The vast superiority of the U.S. Air Force has little to do with number of planes, but with vastly superior training, in-flight coordination and control, as well as precision targeting and superior missiles
- Charles Knight, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives at the Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Institute 

However, these facts don’t suit Romney’s cause. So he ignores them, stating: “we simply cannot continue to cut our Department of Defense budget if we are going to remain the hope of the Earth. And I will fight to make sure America retains military superiority."

Hmm. I wonder if America is really in jeopardy of losing its military superiority. Instead of filibustering this one, I decided to make some charts from the figures compiled by SIPRI regarding military expenditure for 2012:

By the way, most of these countries are our allies.

The guys who we are at war with have attacked us with box cutters, shoe bombs and underwear bombs. Of course more sophisticated weaponry is being used in the Middle East. But will increasing our military expenditure by $1 trillion over 10 years really have any marginal utility when it comes to fighting these combatants?

The fear mongering is back. The GOP can’t win on merit, so they will try win on fear. There is no strategy more despicable.

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