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‘Reasoned argument’s fall from grace’

February 5, 2020

By

Bob Dole, the former congressman, U.S. senator, vice-presidential candidate and presidential candidate from Kansas.

 

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

Andrew Rawnsley, the chief political commentator of the Observer newspaper in London, tweeted on Friday evening, “In case you’ve forgotten, the clocks go back to 1972 tonight.”

That was a reference to the fact that Britain, alongside Ireland and Denmark, made in 1973 the six-strong European Economic Community into a nine-country bloc. In the 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle had vetoed the first effort by the British to join; but persistence pays off; motivation, too, when you know that you’re on the outside of a decision-making process that affects you.  The pro-European attitude was pragmatic: to save independence and sovereignty sometimes you have to pool it.

Also on Friday, the novelist Ian McEwan wrote in the Guardian: “It’s done. A triumph of dogged negotiation by May then, briefly, Johnson, has fulfilled the most pointless, masochistic ambition ever dreamed of in the history of these islands. The rest of the world, presidents Putin and Trump excepted, have watched on in astonishment and dismay.

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“The only certainty is that we’ll be asking ourselves questions for a very long time,” McEwan added. “Set aside for a moment Vote Leave’s lies, dodgy funding, Russian involvement or the toothless Electoral Commission. Consider instead the magic dust.

“How did a matter of such momentous constitutional, economic and cultural consequence come to be settled by a first-past-the-post vote and not by a super-majority? A parliamentary paper (see Briefing 07212) at the time of the 2015 Referendum Act hinted at the reason: because the referendum was merely advisory. It ‘enables the electorate to voice an opinion.’ How did ‘advisory’ morph into ‘binding’? By that blinding dust thrown in our eyes from right and left by populist hands.

“We have witnessed reasoned argument’s fall from grace.”

I can think of an American who has witnessed first-hand reasoned argument’s fall from grace, since his dramatic election to the U.S. Senate in 1972,  On the same day as 29-year-old Joe Biden’s upset win, Richard Nixon won a 2nd term as president. The Watergate break-in had happened five months earlier and, as I pointed out last week, by that stage the candidate most feared by the White House, the 58-year-old Ed Muskie, had been neutralized.

Joe Biden, at age 77, is running for a third time and still standing despite nefarious plots aimed at him. The differences in the White House campaigns against the two men tell us much about our changed times. The first was underhanded and relatively sophisticated; the second ham-fisted, happening almost before our very eyes.

Muskie was a victim of old-style dirty-tricks in the shadows. In the scandal of 2019-20, the president of the United States attempted to extort from a vulnerable ally the announcement of an investigation into a former vice-president of the United States, Biden, who is bidding in this year’s election to displace him. The sometime reality-TV star Trump was primarily interested in the announcement itself, and the president of the Ukraine was to make it on CNN.

 

Joe Biden.

Biden made his first bid for the presidency in 1988, of which there is a highly entertaining and informative account left to history in “What It Takes.” At the outset, the late author Richard Ben Cramer chose to focus on six of the candidates vying to succeed Ronald Reagan in the White House. All six get a fair shake over its more than 1,000 pages, but two in particular emerge as both dynamic and sympathetically human – Biden and Bob Dole.

Dole had been his party’s vice-presidential candidate back in 1974 and would eventually win the GOP nomination in 1996; Biden would in the 21st century become vice president but is still looking to be his party’s standard-bearer 48 years after becoming a U.S. senator.  While not beyond criticism, both men are deserving of a level of respect as living institutions.

And yet in the impeachment hearings before committees of the House of Representatives almost all Republican members got on the Joe Biden/Hunter Biden mantra express. We know Hunter Biden cashed in on his surname and though he broke no laws he is arguably fair game. However, Vice President Joe Biden was carrying out U.S. policy with regard to the Ukraine, indeed the stated policy of the Western alliance and the EU. This is something that anyone reasonably informed about the controversy would know; nevertheless, one after another, the GOP’s pols repeated the various elements of the mantra, because, it’s entirely clear now that they’re not interested in speaking to the reasonably informed or enlightening those who are not.

There isn’t the same machinery of disinformation (via, for example, Fox News) on the Democratic side of the aisle; still, it would be just as depressing and dispiriting if the elected officials of that party were to seek to undermine someone of the caliber and national stature of Bob Dole by constantly repeating statements they knew to be untrue or downright misleading.

Alas, these days, what Ian McEwan called in his piece the “magic dust” or the “blinding dust” makes such an approach possible.

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