More on Evidence-Free Columns

Julia Azari already took apart a few of the claims in Jennifer Rubin’s op/ed from last week, but frankly, you could write a short book on the problems of this one column. I’d like to just go through a few more of Rubin’s arguments, in no particular order:

President Obama got caught flat-footed on Ebola.

I suppose we could define “flat-footed” quite a few ways, so it’s hard to really prove this statement wrong. At the same time, one of the world’s deadlier infectious diseases, having ravaged the populations of several other countries, finally arrived at the U.S.’s shores this year, and it has killed all of one victim here. Three other people infected have survived. The one death is surely a tragedy, but it seems like a rather high bar for the federal government if one death in an epidemic constitutes a failure of policy. By that same standard, Obama has failed to protect us from rabies, which kills three Americans each year.

The president… created a firestorm with an immigration overreach so vast and unprecedented that it surpassed any act of executive brazenness since Watergate.

Wow. Domestic warrantless surveillance, using drones to assassinate Americans abroad, detaining people indefinitely without trial, torture, starting a war based on faulty intelligence, blowing a CIA agent’s cover for political payback, selling weapons to Iran, using the proceeds to illegally fund covert operations in Nicaragua, pardoning Nixon… all of this pales to Obama’s using prosecutorial discretion to allow some undocumented immigrants avoid deportation for a while. Got it.

Many Americans are torn between wanting him to go away — switch channels when he is on TV, wish they could accelerate time until he is out of office, whatever — and praying he will do some triangulation, learn from errors and seek out competent advice.

This is a classic example of “me the people” — claiming that the American people want whatever the author happens to want. Of course, no evidence is cited here.

Similarly, Americans say they do not trust Obama to handle major issues, they don’t like how he responded to the Ferguson, Mo., convulsion, and they would rather Congress run things for a while.

Rubin does link to a poll showing that a majority of Americans disapproved of Obama’s handling of the crisis in Ferguson, but, as Julia points out, Congress was never mentioned in the poll. Given Congress’ approval ratings, it’s hard to imagine Americans actually want what Rubin says they want. It’s also far from clear what it would mean to have Congress run things with regards to Ferguson.

And then there’s this gem:

The sad irony is that the one thing Republicans hoped that Obama (no red states, no blue states, etc.) could do — help reduce racial tensions and be an example of racial progress — he is now singularly unable to do. Virtually everything he says or does inflames and aggravates multiple segments of society… because in the six preceding years he chose to govern as a vicious partisan, jamming through his signature issue on strict party lines with a legislative gimmick and constantly taking delight (most recently in the immigration context) in sticking it to his opponents instead of brokering deals (e.g. the grand bargain he threw away).

I struggle to interpret this statement charitably. She seems to be saying that, while Republicans worked tirelessly to keep Obama from getting elected (twice), one of the few benefits of him being in the White House is that they wouldn’t have to worry about racial tensions anymore because, hey, look at the president! But Obama ruined that by signing the very laws he promised to sign while he was running. And now Obama’s “rhetoric and actions did not cause these recent racial incidents, but they come in a context he certainly created.” Yes, unarmed African American men were killed by police officers in a context created by Obama. I really don’t know how to interpret that.

For the record, I think there is tremendous value in having a profession whose purpose is an ongoing criticism of the presidency. And hyperbole may even be a useful tool in the service of that profession once in a while. But what Rubin is doing here is beyond any sense of reasoned critique. And it’s certainly not bound by evidence.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.