Preposterous Universe

Wednesday, July 07, 2004
Policy eigenstates

I wanted to link to this cartoon, but PZ Myers beat me to it.

Kerry should have just shifted the topic to string theory. Aren't politicians trained to answer the question they wanted to be asked, rather than what was actually asked?

Kerry's penchant for hedging is obviously going to be a major GOP talking point in the upcoming election, in stark contrast with a President who doesn't know the meaning of the phrase "on the other hand." Of course, to any reasonable person Bush's single-mindedness and complete lack of doubt is a bad thing; in a complicated world, sometimes a little nuance is called for. Nevertheless, Kerry truly does have a problem with trying to have everything both ways, and deploying lawyerly caveats to make sure he keeps everybody happy. Of course, Clinton had a similar problem, and now he's a bestselling author, so maybe it's not an absolute barrier to success.

The press has already fallen for the stereotype of Kerry as being unable to construct a simple declarative sentence. Slate has a feature called "Kerryisms," in which they strip a quote of its "caveats and curliques." Eugene Volokh (not a typical Kerry voter, I would imagine) has shown how ridiculous the Kerryisms are (here, here, here); the caveats are very often simple and necessary parts of the meaning of the original statement. Saletan has a completely lame apologia for what he is trying to do. (The real reason for the feature is that Slate has an equally silly "Bushisms" feature, where they make fun of the President for his malapropisms, and as you know it's important to be balanced.)

The message to future candidates for public office is clear. Speak in cliches, preferably ones with universal appeal. Stick to nouns and verbs, perhaps with an occasional adjective or adverb; anything at the level of a prepositional phrase is sufficient grounds to suspect insincerity or worse. Avoid complicated issues of public policy; the people need to have their hearts lifted by statements of steely resolve, and there's little time for wonky hair-splitting.

Bush/Cheney '04: Classical leadership in times of quantum uncertainty.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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