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September 14, 2009

Obama: "Do As I Say, Not As I Do"

Who writes this guy's material, anyway?

“The truth of the matter is that there has been, I think, a coarsening of our political dialogue,” Obama told Steve Kroft in an interview taped at the White House on Friday evening.

... one of the things that I’m trying to figure out is: How can we make sure that civility is interesting?”

Gee. I don't know, Mr. President ... perhaps, practice it yourself?

For months I've maintained that despite repeated provocation from our Lefty Brethren in Christ, conservatives shouldn't use their misdeeds to justify the adoption of tactics we've always said were unprincipled. There are plenty of ways to get your point across without hitting below the belt. That said, I can't help but agree - at least in part - with this quote from Glenn Reynolds a few days ago. It really stuck in my mind; so much so that I went back and looked for it today:

I’m finding it hard to get excited about this. It [Joe Wilson's "You lie!"] was a breach of decorum and civility. But someone who says “get in their face” and “punch back twice as hard” has little standing to bring that up. If you want to benefit from traditions of civility, you should respect them, and that has hardly been a hallmark of this administration, which has gone out of its way to try to demonize and shout down opponents.

Now some may think I'm condoning Wilson's outburst. That construction would be wrong, though. I think Wilson was wrong to yell out, "You lie!" and right to apologize for violating House rules he's expected to abide by. That said, I don't have a lot of sympathy for President Obama for the reasons I've laid out so often before (and which Glenn so neatly summarized). If you want others to obey the rules and observe the niceties, you have to reciprocate.

There's another point that is getting lost here. There is no doubt that Wilson's shouted "You Lie!" was effective. But why was it effective? Does anyone really believe that if cries of "Liar!" were commonplace in the House or Senate, the incident would have garnered this much attention? It's remarkable precisely because such outbursts are rare.

They're rare for good reason. Some have cited the House of Commons as an atmosphere in which the rules of decorum don't apply. This argument is false, however:

Can you call the British prime minister a liar when he is speaking in the House of Commons? As a former holder of a House of Commons press pass, I have been asked by my colleagues to rule on this important issue, brought to our attention by Joe Wilson’s outburst during the President’s health-care speech to Congress. The answer is no: While it is true that you are certainly allowed (indeed encouraged) to heckle the prime minister or any other speaker, it is strictly forbidden to call him a liar. And if you do, the Speaker of the House is entitled to object and ask you withdraw this “unparliamentary language.” Over the years, Speakers have in addition objected to other insults, among them (according to the rule book) blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, rat, swine, stoolpigeon and traitor. And no one is allowed to accuse another member of being drunk, either, even though some of them sometimes are.

Like Applebaum, I've watched debate in the British House of Commons and even there this sort of outburst would be met with scorn and derision. Wilson was right to apologize. He violated House rules, and it speaks well for his character that he didn't try to pretend this isn't what he did. Rules don't exist because we're perfect. They exist because we're human; because experience teaches us that without such rules, people behave unacceptably and others are encouraged when they get away with such behavior. Rules like this don't prevent such lapses 100% of the time. But they do provide a mechanism for discouraging unacceptable behavior. They also allow for society to demonstrate disapproval if the offender refuses to show some contrition (which is not what has happened here).

The fact that a member of the House of Representatives lost his cool and said something he shouldn't have said is significant, not because it happens all the time (it doesn't) or because strong feelings are uncommon in politics (feelings ran high during both Bush terms), but because sometimes the breach of a rule has something important to teach us about why the rule is there in the first place.

As Michael Kinsley notes, Wilson has already apologized twice. The House can certainly censure him if they think a formal condemnation of the breach is needed, but fanning the flames of partisan outrage is more likely to backfire than to benefit them:

...it is against House rules for a representative to call the president a liar during an official session of the House, even if you sincerely think he is one. Or, for that matter, even if he really is one -- as all of them are, on occasion. The purpose of this rule is to attempt to enforce a level of civility in the political debate. The result, though, is just the opposite: It is simply another opportunity for a fusillade in the Umbrage Wars. No matter how important or otherwise the underlying issue may be, it seems that about three-quarters of American politics can now be distilled down to "How dare you say that!" Taking offense at someone else's possibly over-vigorous exercise of free speech, demanding an apology and so on has replaced much serious discussion about, oh, health care, the financial crisis, Iraq, Afghanistan, stuff like that. Umbrage is so much easier: You can do it in your sleep, or on talk radio.

Umbrage is itself, generally, a lie. The ostensible victim of the offensive remark (call him or her the "umbragee") is actually delighted at the opportunity, while the ostensible offense giver (call him or her the "umbragor") is sorry to have wandered into this thicket, or is made to feel sorry as the umbrage game plays itself out. The rules of the game are perverse but simple: I scream with pain until you cry "uncle."

...all the attention is making him more popular within his own constituency, not less so. Why can't the Democrats be the class act here and just drop it? Sticks and stones, and all that.

The best reason for letting this drop is that further attention only calls attention to the fact that Obama's own behavior is hardly above reproach. After describing his opponents as shameless liars motivated not by sincerely held beliefs but by cynical partisan opportunism, the President can hardly claim to be upholding civility. Nor, now that multiple sources have demonstrated that both the claims and anecdotes used to support his sales pitch suffered from a "truth deficit", can he claim Wilson's outrage was unfounded.

Obama has a long history of ostentatiously "warning" his supporters that his opponents are [gasp!] preparing to use Obama's own tactics against him!

During the campaign, Obama loudly denounced his opponents for their inability to "get beyond divisive racial attacks" while blatantly using the very divisive tactics he claimed to oppose:

I don't know. Could you work the words "fear", "afraid", "scary", and "black" in there just a few more times, Barry? Because I'm "afraid" voters might miss the point.

You know, that you're... like, totally ... black. And the bad, scary Republicans want us to be afraid of you. Because you're so ... black. Even though you're half white. Which we're not supposed to talk about, because that would be focusing on race and you were so hoping we could get beyond that, I know. Damned Republicans. If only they'd quit bringing up the fact.

That you're black. And we should fear you.

The same pattern shows up on the health care debate. First Obama piles on the heavy handed scare tactics himself:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing. Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true.

Then he warns supporters that his opponents may [egads!] engage in heavy handed scare tactics:

This is when they spread all kinds of rumors to scare and intimidate the American people. This is what they always do.

No, Mr. President, that is what you always do. And if you want it to stop, perhaps you should consider living by your own rules. Two wrongs don't make a right, you're barking up the wrong tree if you think no one has noticed that you consistently refuse to abide by the rules you want your opponents to follow.

It's called leadership. And when you're the President of the United States, you are held to a higher standard. The ball's in your court.

Posted by Cassandra at September 14, 2009 08:30 AM

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"Do As I Say, Not As I Do"

Ummm...yeah. When has that line ever worked, really?!

Posted by: camojack at September 15, 2009 01:36 AM

In boxing, a hit below the belt is called "a foul," and the offender is penalized. In politics, a hit below the belt is called "playing with the big boys," and the offender is only penalized if he's a Republican.

My motto in life is "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them -- within reasonable limits."

Which means one can prod me with a stick, but one may expect neither to retain possession of it nor have it returned in one piece.

Nor have it returned into the palm of one's hand...

Posted by: BillT at September 15, 2009 04:27 AM

When I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that had Wilson yelled out, "That's not true!" rather than "You lie", I'm not sure I could have faulted him.

The difference is subtle - disputing the factual accuracy of a statement rather than accusing the speaker of deliberately passing on false information (with the knowledge that it was false): IOW, a "lie". Also, arguing a point is not against House rules.

I see the first as disputing a point. I see the second as not only disputing the point, but impugning the integrity of the speaker.

That's one reason I can't get too excited about Wilson's outburst even though I think it was wrong. Having called his opponents "liars", Obama has an uphill battle to convince me that Wilson was out of line, but somehow Obama wasn't when he did the exact same thing.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 15, 2009 04:46 AM

"...impugning the integrity of the speaker."

Um, excuse me? How many times does Xerxes have to lie -- "I won't take private campaign contributions." "Jeremiah Wright never said anything radical, racist or anti-American in his church." "This administration is going to be completely transparent." "If you like your health insurance, you can keep it." "No, illegals will not be covered by this bill." "No, really! It does! The sun comes right out of my a$$ every morning!!" (ok, I made that last one up, however believable it may sound. 0>:~}) -- before he can be considered a liar, or without 'impugning his *koff* integrity'? (Whatever that may be.)
And would you have applied the same standard to your boys?

Posted by: DL Sly at September 15, 2009 11:33 AM

Do you seriously intend to tell me that the sun does not, in fact, come right out of his a$$ every morning?

Posted by: Sacre Bleu!!!! I am shocked... shocked I tell you! at September 15, 2009 11:39 AM

"Um, excuse me? How many times does Xerxes have to lie"
For Pravda to call him on it?

Hmmm, I'll have to see if the floating point processor in this iddy, biddy PC is up to that task. Then it'll probably take a while, like chasing the precision of Pi towards ∞, but I'll get back to you.

Posted by: bthun at September 15, 2009 12:01 PM

Ahhh! I submitted a cron job to Deep Thought asking the question,

"How many times does Xerxes have to lie before liberals and Pravda call him on them?"
I have just now received a two part response.

For the average liberal: After The Won's policies mug them and their loved ones.

For Pravda: When Hades freezes over.

Posted by: Arthur Dent at September 15, 2009 12:46 PM

Well, it sure as helk isn't 42.

Posted by: The Guide at September 15, 2009 01:08 PM

Posted by: Sacre Bleu!!!! I am shocked... shocked I tell you! at September 15, 2009 11:39 AM.

Well you shouldn't be....I told you it was believable.

"...see if the floating point processor in this iddy, biddy PC is up to that task."

How are you going to define the variables for degree of lip movement-to-es pravda! in your code?

On second thought, maybe it *does*.....

Posted by: DL Sly at September 15, 2009 01:09 PM