If Republicans during the Clinton administration were frustrated by the former president's ability to use triangulation, Democrats must be equally irritated by President Bush's use of the "Straw Man" fallacy.
The "Straw Man" fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. At the State of the Union, with the nation watching, the president — like a ventriloquist — placed a facsimile of the Democrats' argument on his lap and proceeded to effectively put words into the dummy's mouth.
In addressing the NSA eavesdropping scandal the president stated: "It is said that prior to the attacks of Sept. 11 our government failed to connect the dots of the conspiracy.
"So to prevent another attack, based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute, I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates to and from America. Previous presidents have used the same Constitutional authority I have, and federal courts have approved the use of that authority. Appropriate members of Congresshavebeenkept informed.
"This terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks. It remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with al-Qaeda, we want to know about it, because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again."
The president claims this "terrorist surveillance program," which he admitted in a recent news conference requires the circumvention of the existing laws, is necessary. To follow the Straw Man Democrat's way of thinking and end it could result in another attack.
The administration tells us it's looking out for our safety. Yet, it is enacting bankruptcy legislation that benefits primarily the banking and credit card industries while punishing those who cannot pay catastrophic medical expenses. Tax cuts ad infinitum have furthered the gap between rich and poor while adding to record deficits. And the administration has shrewdly manipulated a war so that only a very few actually feel its pain.
This administration was wrong about weapons of mass destruction, wrong about torture and is being proven wrong about democracy in the Middle East, as recent elections will attest. But it is the straw man Democrat who doesn't mind if we are attacked again that offsets these facts.
Where are the courageous Democrats willing to stand up to Karl Rove's nonsensical assertion that there is a Mason-Dixon line that delineates a pre-Sept. 11 versus a post-Sept. 11 world view?
Is Rove suggesting that in this post-Sept. 11 world it's OK to attack countries with flawed intelligence, bankrupt our own nation and pay lip service to the victims of natural disasters?
This administration loves to point out that there has not been another attack on America since Sept. 11 — as if this somehow justifies their otherwise dubious behavior.
Suppose, God forbid, there is another attack.
Will the administration keep its present course? Or will it use fear to become a bigger, stronger, less caring version of itself?
The tragedy of Sept. 11 does not change everything. It does not make the president above the law. Nor does it suggest that we must forgo our values in order to hang onto to the slender thread of perceived safety.
As for the Democrats, to call them an opposition party would be an insult to the courageous legislators of the past who have stood up for the minority. By capitulating through their willingness to accept their straw man role, they have become the Costello to the GOP's Abbott.
This does not bode well for a party that is hoping to gain seats in the Senate and House this fall. Frankly, if they cannot break out of the straw man mold, I question whether they deserve to be put in control.
It is not enough to be right on the issues. For as the president has successfully demonstrated, it is possible to be wrong on the issues and merely appear to provide leadership — especially when you can also put words in the other party's mouth.
The Rev. Byron Williams is pastor of Resurrection Community Church in Oakland, Calif.