Monday, August 16, 2010

Obama is shot down by his own straw men

It has been delightful to see the White House and Obama tying themselves in knots with trying to take a position on the mosque near Ground Zero while not going too far out on a limb away from American political opinion. So first Obama came out with his carefully crafted speech on Friday night to his Muslim guests at the White House Ramadan dinner.
But let me be clear. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. (Applause.) And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.
But that was all one big platitudinous straw man. Except for a few people on the fringe, no one is saying that the Muslims don't have the right, legally and constitutionally, to build their mosque. The objections go to the choice that they are making to inflame public opinion by putting that mosque there. Critics are asking that they rethink their decision and place their community center and mosque somewhere else. No one is saying that there should be legal restrictions on where Muslims can and cannot build mosques.

But Obama, as always, loves to set up straw men arguments that paint those with whom he disagrees as bigots who reject American principles. Or he will portray his opponents as people who don't want to do anything in the face of our nation's problems. Once he's shot down his straw men, he is confident that all that remains is for everyone to agree with his clearly reasonable positions.

But this time, his use of straw men arguments failed. Since everyone knew that the question wasn't whether the Muslims have the right and freedom to build their mosque, Obama's remarks were taken to be an endorsement of the idea of their building their mosque in that particular location in the first place. And that is why criticism mounted all Saturday to the point that Obama had to try to draw a distinction between what he said and how it was being interpreted.
“In this country, we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion
. I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” Obama told reporters accompanying him and first lady Michelle Obama on a trip to the Gulf Coast.

“I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding.
So, please understand. Obama is endorsing the basic principle of freedom of religion, which no one was attacking, but not saying anything about the mosque because he knows that there are no benefits to getting on the wrong side of the question. He's already on the wrong side of too many issues from where the American people are from civilian trials for KSM, to his health care plan, to the stimulus, to his stance on enforcing immigration at the border. He didn't need to jump into the minority position on a whole other debate. All he wanted to do was strike the noble pose of someone who supports our nation's belief in freedom of religion. He was stating a platitude, not an opinion. And we were all just too stupid to understand.

But even that wasn't clear enough, and after he got criticism for muddying his message, the White House had to issue a third statement to clarify his clarification.
“Just to be clear, the president is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night,” Burton said. “It is not his role as president to pass judgment on every local project. But it is his responsibility to stand up for the constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans. What he said last night, and reaffirmed today, is that if a church, a synagogue or a Hindu temple can be built on a site, you simply cannot deny that right to those who want to build a mosque.”

White House officials later said that Obama was simply saying that since there is no local ordinance that would prevent construction of the mosque, he believed local officials made the right decision to allow it to go forward.
Duh! The reason no one was buying his defense of his first, meticulously phrased statement is because no one bought his whole straw man argument. And his conservative opponents gleefully pounced. Byron York called the President's two statements "Clintonian." Ouch. Lynne Cheney summed it all up by saying the “I guess President Obama was for the mosque before he was against it. You can quote me." And it's not good for our Harvard president when Sarah Palin's facebook message cuts to the heart of his blather.
“Mr. President, should they or should they not build a mosque steps away from where radical Islamists killed 3,000 people? Please tell us your position. We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they? And, no, this is not above your pay grade,” Palin wrote on Facebook.
That's exactly the question. And, as a purely political matter, Obama did much better in evading the question rather than trying to make some glorious transcendent statement that would allow him to rise above those puny strawmen he insists on setting up. Now that he's spent the weekend backtracking on the issue, his statements are making it fair game to ask every politician their own answer to Palin's question and not allowing them the easy out of saying it is purely a local matter.

It is about time for the President's reliance on phony, strawmen arguments to come back and bit him.