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Sunday, September 28, 2008

If A Candidate Says Something, Does That Count As Saying Something?

So, back in the primaries, Obama stated that if as president he had information about the whereabouts of bin Laden or his aides in Pakistan, and if Pakistan wouldn't or couldn't act to stop them, then he, Obama, would act, even if it meant violating Pakistani sovereignty. I'm not an IR/IL expert, but my understanding is that there's no legal problem with this: one of the responsibilities of sovereignty is not to protect or fail to stop those who would carry out violent acts against other nations. But leave that issue aside, because the criticism that McCain currently makes of Obama on this point isn't that Obama would act to protect the US (I can't remember if McCain originally made that criticism). Rather, it's that Obama says he would, out loud. According to McCain, there's some sort of hand-tipping going on that is somehow bad. Let's say for the sake of argument that McCain's right on this point.

Then how to explain today's statements by McCain on This Week? It all started with a comment that Sarah Palin made yesterday in Philadelphia. Asked by a Temple University grad student, Michael Rovito, whether "we do cross border, like from Afghanistan to Pakistan" due to the instability and threats from the western Pakistani area of Waziristan, Palin replied:

"If that's what we have to do stop the terrorists from coming any further in, absolutely, we should,"

Now, I'm no linguist, but it sounds to me like Sarah Palin has agreed not only with Obama's position, but has also said so, out loud. Asked about this by George Stephanopoulos today, McCain said that Sarah Palin "'shares' his views".

Ok. Obama says do something if necessaary. McCain says he shouldn't say that out loud. Palin says, out loud, that we should act if necessary. McCain says she shares his views. Asked by Stephanopoulos whether Palin didn't state that view out loud, McCain basically said no; at least, he wouldn't concede the point (I can't find a transcript yet or I'd provide the whole exchange). Stehpanopoulos then asks something like, "So she shouldn't have said it?" McCain won't agree. Then, having said Palin shares his views, and having refused to say she shouldn't have said those views out loud, McCain says the following:

"In all due respect, people going around and… sticking a microphone while conversations are being held, and then all of a sudden that's—that's a person's position… This is a free country, but I don't think most Americans think that that's a definitve [sic] policy statement made by Governor Palin."

So which is it?

1. McCain and Palin agree with Obama on the policy and are happy to say so out loud, in which case McCain disagrees with himself on being open about policy.

2. McCain and Palin agree with Obama on the policy but Palin shouldn't have said so out loud, in which case McCain disagrees with Palin's having been open about policy.

3. Palin shares McCain's views but didn't really take a definitive position when she held a conversation taking Obama's policy position out loud, in which case McCain and Palin share each other's views but may or may not share Obama's views on policy, and despite saying out loud that she does share that view, Palin has not definitively stated, out loud, what her view is, and therefore has not run afoul of McCain's view that one should not state one's policy views out loud.

Baffling, and ever more farcical.

Posted by Jonah Gelbach on September 28, 2008 at 03:07 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 2, 2008 8:32:43 PM


jonathan and pw:

no sweat, and no need to apologize.

please do feel free to continue commenting -- even when i disagree with people, and even when the disagreement is fervent, i think discourse is a lot better than ignoring each other. the reason i'm willing to spend my time doing this (believe me, there are plenty of other things i probly should be doing instead) is that i worry that the art of intellectual justification for disagreement is dying in our politics, and that worries me.

if i answer one of your comments, it's because i think there might be something to be gained by doing so; you won't find me tossing out insults (i try hard to delete them before pressing "Post"!). if you do choose to comment, i hope you'll do so in the same spirit.


Posted by: jonah gelbach | Sep 29, 2008 12:32:42 PM

My apologies, Professor Gelbach. I didn't realize you had authorization from on high.

Posted by: Paul Washington | Sep 29, 2008 12:22:59 PM

Then blog away! If the blog's admins want to direct the blog in certain ways, that's entirely up to them!

Posted by: Jonathan | Sep 29, 2008 11:33:20 AM

Just a quick point: the goal has never been to have Prawfs be "neutral" though we do strive towards intellectual honesty and some degree of objectivity or independence. As Jonah rightly notes, he was invited to do more predictably political blogging but knowing that he would be open about his views and willing to defend them in a way that continues rather than closes the conversation. If you're not interested in reading his posts or hearing his views, then skip it.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Sep 29, 2008 11:21:50 AM

Fyi, to anon(s?) and Jonathan:

There's no reason you should know this, unless you happened to see one of the posts that Dan Markel put up when he announced my role as a guest blogger. But (a) I'm an economist rather than a lawyer, tho I do work on law & econ issues, and (b) Dan has specifically asked me to blog about politics stuff.

I don't post every thought that comes to mind about the election or the candidates, because I don't think that's what I was asked to do. I do post occasionally on stuff that I think rises past the level of standard back-and-forth (I would include this post in that example, since it involves an issue of confusion and logic, rather than simple hypocrisy, and my posts on Palin and conservative economics were there to make the point to a non-econ crowd that conservative economics isn't supposed to just be the economic policies pursued by political conservatives).

As for the suggestion of "pugnacious political bravado", I have been entertained at the lack of any comments, most notably from detractors, following my post suggesting that Charlie Rangel step down, preferably from the House, but at a minimum from his chairmanship of the Ways and Means committee.

I don't always reply to comments, because some of them don't merit a reply. But sometimes I do, as in this thread, when I think there's a point to be made by doing so. I'm sorry if some folks think that an honest discussion is "just useless and may even be hurtful" to their preferred candidate. I happen to disagree, but of course that's why their are red shirts and blue shirts.

If you're bothered by political commentary on this site, be it in agreement or disagreement with your views, my recommendation is:

(a) Email one of the blog's administrators (I'd recommend Markel, since he's the one who invited me) and ask him to boot me. I promise not to break in to the site and keep posting in that event.

(b) If that's too much trouble, or if Dan disagrees with you, perhaps you should just not read or comment on posts that look like they will make you say stuff like "Please stop".


Posted by: jonah gelbach | Sep 29, 2008 10:44:13 AM

I agree with anon, there. I sighed when I read this - I'm not an IR/IL expert, but my understanding is that there's no legal problem with this. Realizing that catching the other side in a (real or perceived) hypocrisy is great fun, but surely there is something of substantial legal import going on that requires the use of jurisprudence...? It could even be a discussion from which we could all be edified, such as the legal issues involved in the aforementioned IR/IL question of cross-border attacks.

Posted by: Jonathan | Sep 29, 2008 8:56:40 AM

What a drag these postings, and the angry comments they inevitably provoke, are. As a long-time supporter of Obama, these kinds of exchanges are just useless and may even be hurtful to the guy I want to see win (at least they seem completely counterproductive to me, though I guess others are entertained by pugnacious political bravado). Are we to be treated to this through October, too? Please stop.

Posted by: anon | Sep 29, 2008 8:29:06 AM

You should just rename this the ObamaBlawg. Can we be done with the politics on here?

Posted by: anon | Sep 29, 2008 12:37:56 AM

1. Regarding Paul Washington's comment: you're welcome not to be bothered when politicians contradict things they say, though I'd add two comments. First, if one takes this position as a blanket view, then one forfeits the right to criticize the other side, at all, for such stuff; that's your right. Second, the point of my post wasn't, actually, that McCain said something that contradicted what he'd said earlier. It was that he said something that contradicted what he'd said earlier and immediately said something that contradicted the contradiction, which illustrates how totally ludicrous the original position was: at a very basic level, publicly declaring that you hold position X but oppose saying that you support position X it is gobbledygook, since you've just said you support position X. The only coherent thing to say if you really feel that way is that you refuse to state your position, and that's not what McCain has done. The farce is that when Palin did the same thing, McCain insisted that she both shared his views and hadn't somehow run afoul of his don't-say-what-they-are-even-as-you-do-say-what-they-are dictum. That's the point I was making, not that he contradicted what he said earlier.

2. Regarding humblelawstudent's comment: since I didn't mention Biden or clean coal in my post, I take it from your second paragraph that your first one was meant as some sort of analogy, I'm guessing of the form that "you say X about my teams, but your team has done the same thing, so you must be wrong in some important way" (if I've misunderstood, I apologize, but I can't figure out how your comment makes any more sense on any other reading). But the apparent analogy is really quite inapt. Sure, Biden said a dumb thing, given both his own record and Obama's proposals. Personally, I think mis-stating your position isn't as bad as insisting that an incoherent position (see above) is a good one, but let's leave that to one side.

The more important point with respect to your analogy is simple: neither Biden nor Obama has declared that McCain or Palin are unqualified to handle the office of the presidency because of their positions on clean coal. By contrast, McCain has repeatedly suggested that Obama's willingness to openly declare his position on the Pakistan-sovereignty issue is evidence of unqualification.

Not all positions are held with equal weight, and so not all mistakes are, either.

Posted by: jonah gelbach | Sep 29, 2008 12:03:26 AM

Ever more farcical . . . Oh, you must be referring to Biden's statement a few days ago that Obama/Biden are against clean coal in the US, until he had to be, uhhh, reminded of his "true" position that they are in favor of clean coal.

People on both sides sometime forget the party (or campaign) line. It happens.

Posted by: humblelawstudent | Sep 28, 2008 11:04:27 PM

Sarah Palin is actually a stand-in for Risa Levitt Kohn, the museum curator in San Diego who

(1) presented herself as a "Dead Sea Scrolls scholar" even though she had never published anything on the topic;

(2) explained, several months later, that she was not an "expert" on the scrolls and had only a "tangential knowledge" of the topic;

(3) asserted that "you don't want to confuse people" by telling them the truth about the current state of research on the Dead Sea Scrolls; and finally

(4) declared that the scrolls are "not really Jewish texts" (a view with which, incidentally, the Jewish Museum in New York appears to disagree).

Kohn's peculiar declarations did not stop the North Carolina Department of the Environment from hiring her as their "scientific consultant." And, althought the thought makes me cringe in terror, Sarah Palin's statements might not stop the American people from voting for her either...

See, e.g., http://www.nowpublic.com/culture/did-christian-agenda-lead-biased-dead-sea-scrolls-exhibit-san-diego

Posted by: View from Here | Sep 28, 2008 8:18:49 PM

This is really odd. I never thought I'd see the day when a politician said something seemingly in contradiction with something they said earlier.

Posted by: Paul Washington | Sep 28, 2008 3:57:09 PM

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