Sunday, December 2, 2018

What Is Wrong with Absolute Political Promises? George H. W. Bush, “Read my Lips,” and the Plot to Murder the Apostle Paul

 George H. W. Bush

The passing of former president George H. W. Bush gives us a chance to think about lessons learned and opportunities missed. Bush’s most famous speech line came in his Acceptance Speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention. Having served as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President for eight years, Bush had been a shoo-in favorite for the Republican presidential nomination. By 1988, the Republican Party’s formerly complex economic policy had come down to opposing taxes, especially taxes that might bother rich people. Accordingly, Bush mentioned taxes seven times during the speech. Bush's most famous line was also his most unwise: “My opponent won't rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I'll say no, and they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again, and I'll say, to them, 'Read my lips: No new taxes.'" He later found it necessary to raise taxes, and some people think this is not only why he lost his 1992 reelection campaign, but also why Republicans have been reluctant to compromise ever since.

Read my lips: No new taxes. That was an impossible promise to keep. In general, I’m leery of politicians who make absolute promises. When I think of them, I’m reminded of a Bible story.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, Book 23, a group of religious conservatives, who found the apostle Paul’s preaching to be disturbing, swore a murderous oath that they would neither eat nor drink until Paul was dead. Paul’s nephew got wind of the plot and informed a Roman officer, who assigned 470 soldiers, no fewer, to guard Paul. They escorted Paul safely to the governor, Felix, for trial; Felix ruled that Paul should be sent to Rome so the Emperor could judge his case.

I have often wondered what happened to the cruel but foolish men who swore neither to eat nor drink until Paul was dead. Once their mission failed, they faced a choice: they could break their oath by eating and drinking, or they could die of thirst and starvation. The Bible doesn’t say which. They had sealed themselves up into a difficult situation, had they not?

A promise never to raise taxes sounds good, and conservative voters will like hearing it. But there are many times that taxes need to be raised. Government revenues might be insufficient to fund necessary programs. The government might need to raise taxes to cool an inflationary economy. In Bush’s case, a contributing factor was that Republicans did not control both houses of Congress, and Bush needed to offer a compromise to get Democrats to agree to the budget. Congress did push him to raise taxes, just as he had warned, and he caved. Really, what else could he have done?

Bush did not agree to a large increase in taxes. Most people probably didn’t even notice: I certainly did not when I filed my tax return. Most people did know, however, that he had broken his unreasonable and unrealistic promise.

Be careful what you say when you’re running for office. What you say might come back to haunt you. Candidates can make all kinds of unrealistic promises: presidents and other government officials must deal with the real world.

By the way, I heard President George H. W. Bush speak in person at a 2002 rhetoric conference at the Bush Presidential Library. Conference organizer Martin Medhurst found Bush in his office and brought him down to meet with us for a few minutes. He gave an articulate, charming, and complimentary talk. I was lucky enough to expand my own brief talk at the conference into a book chapter.

It really is a shame that a single unwise statement, drafted by a speechwriter (in this case, Peggy Noonan) who would never need to accept responsibility for what she wrote, came to define an entire presidency. It would be more proper for us to remember Bush for saying, in the same speech, “I want a kinder, and gentler nation.” That was more typical of his real feelings.

But, then again, words make a difference, don’t they? And no matter who wrote it, Bush, and not his staff, was responsible for making his unwise, absolute, and unkeepable promise. 

Image: Official White House portrait via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

McKinley's 1896 Speeches Made the Tariff Sound Patriotic - Just Like Trump!

William McKinley, Library of Congress
William McKinley ran for president in 1896 on a pro-tariff platform. Just like Donald Trump after him, McKinley made tariffs sound patriotic. To support American industries, which McKinley claimed to be a patriotic policy, he said that we need to stop overseas competition. In 1896, the United States was still reeling from the Depression of 1893. The depression’s true cause had nothing to do with tariffs or free trade, and was due to poor monetary policy or, more exactly, the nation’s lack of monetary policy.

McKinley proposed the gold standard and the protective tariff to alleviate the depression. Economically, these ideas were popular but foolish. McKinley argued that the nation needed to turn inward to face its economic catastrophe. This natural but unwise reaction was similar to the reactions that people had after the great recession of 2007. Let’s talk about a few short speeches that McKinley gave about the tariff.

During his 1896 campaign, McKinley mostly stayed at home while delegations of Republican voters marched to his home in Canton, Ohio to hear and give brief speeches. In September 1896, during a speech to a group of Pennsylvania steelworkers, McKinley said that, “Nor do I think that it is economy to buy goods cheaply abroad if thereby it enforces idleness at home.” In a speech to workers from Homestead, Pennsylvania, McKinley said: “Gentlemen, I have always been, as you know, in favor of a protective tariff. (Loud and continuous applause).” He called the tariff a “great principle” and emphasized “the laboring man of the United States.” He came close to saying that the tariff was part of a conspiracy to help the rich to oppress the poor.

On October 10, a group of Cleveland steelworkers came to hear McKinley speak. He told them that: “we should look after our own people (great applause and cries of ‘That’s the stuff,’) before we look after the people of other lands.” He continued that: “I hope and fervently pray that we will enter upon an era of prosperity.” Hope was his only choice, since his policies certainly would do no good.  Later that same day, a delegation of Republican voters came from Pittsburgh and McKinley made his point even more forcefully: “This is a year when partyism counts for but little and when patriotism counts for everything.” Since the tariff protects American industry from foreign competition, it is easy for politicians to make-believe that the tariff is patriotic. Pro-tariff people often still think that way. Several years ago I made a presentation about parliamentary procedure to a group of Ohio autoworkers. The union hall parking lot’s sign clearly said that only American-made cars were welcome. Lucky for me, I was driving a Chevy.

Like Donald Trump after him, McKinley made no effort at all to explain tariff policy. He did not delve into economic theories to the slightest degree. The brief quotations that I gave above represent the entire depth of his ideas, and McKinley’s many pro-tariff speeches simply repeated the same talking point over and over in slightly different words. Wave the flag, protect American industry, set up the tariff, watch out for the old world.

A while back, I wrote about Henry Clay’s tariff speech, which, in some ways, sounded much like Trump’s tariff speeches. McKinley also ran on the tariff, and, as we can see, his ideas were very similar to Trump’s. Just as Trump made tariffs central to his “America First” slogan, so McKinley made tariffs out to be the only choice that patriots could make. Tariffs are always popular, even though they are always a bad idea. Politicians can easily make bad ideas sound good, and good ideas sound bad. 

For more information: I talk about William McKinley’s campaign speeches in my book, From the Front Porch to the Front Page: McKinley and Bryan In the 1896 Presidential Campaign. The book is available in paperback and can be found in most university libraries. In his last speech, given in Buffalo, New York, the day before he was murdered, McKinley came out in favor of free trade. I talk about that speech in a chapter in Before the Rhetorical Presidency, edited by Martin J. Medhurst.

William McKinley’s speeches can be hard to find. Various Northeastern Ohio newspapers published texts of them in 1896, especially the Canton Repository. Northeastern Ohio university libraries, such as the University of Akron, John Carroll University, and Youngstown State University, might be able to find copies for you. You might look at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. There is a published book of McKinley’s campaign speeches, but it is out-of-print and very hard to find. Major university library databases nationwide probably also have newspaper copies of his speeches available; the librarians can help you find them. If you ever visit Canton, Ohio, be sure to see the McKinley Museum where you can learn more about McKinley and visit his monument.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Why Have Conservatives Forgotten about Tradition and Turned to Name-Calling? Or, How Can Conservatives Argue Like Conservatives?

Okay, sure, I know that liberals call people names all the time. Hillary Clinton said that half of Donald Trump’s supporters were in a “basket of deplorables.“ That was an awful thing to say. Anyone who would say such a thing probably deserved to lose an election. Still, calling people names seems to have become central to conservative talk.

President Donald Trump has mastered childish name-calling. Think about the phrases that he has added to our political lexicon: “Lyin’, lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco,” and “Crooked Hillary.” “Rocket Man” is in a class of its own. Trump did not, of course, invent this hideous discourse; he just heard what conservatives were saying every day and outdid them. Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh’s show of November 21 referred to “modern-day feminazis and their wuss male supporters.” Two radio hosts referred to a Sikh politician as “turban man.” (They were suspended.)

Now, name-calling is political talk’s lowest form. The ideal of republican government is for us to debate about issues and character. Name-calling does not advance that agenda. How do you debate someone who only wants to call you names?

Why is this happening? I can only speculate. Here are some academic-type hypotheses:

1. Maybe people call each other names because they don’t know how to make rational arguments. This is an important conclusion of research conducted by my friend and colleague Andrew Rancer and his co-authors. They define an “argumentativeness trait” as a personal inclination to give reasons and evidence for your points, whereas a “verbal aggressiveness” trait is an inclination to engage in personal attacks instead of making arguments. They concluded that people become verbally aggressive because they lack debating skill. People who receive simple instruction to learn how to prove a point use less verbal aggression. All things being equal, training people in argumentation, debate, philosophy, and related humanities fields might help them to argue more constructively.

2. Here’s a more speculative answer. Conservatives don’t need to make policy arguments. That’s because people don’t always know where their traditions come from. Liberals always want to plan new things and examine cause and effect, as the conservative theorist Richard Weaver pointed out in his wonderful book The Ethics of Rhetoric. In contrast, conservatives argue from definitions, broad principles, or the simple weight of tradition. We often forget where our traditions come from, which means that we can’t always explain them. Scientists Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson explain this in Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Unfortunately, when they are unable to articulate their traditions, traditionalists might respond to disagreement, not by talking about long-forgotten lessons, but instead by calling people names.

Tradition can be good. Generations pass something of what is learned to the next generation. That is called tradition. We don’t have to figure things out from scratch; we can learn from people who came before us. Liberals often overestimate how skillfully they can solve problems or create new social ideas. Oddly, conservatives don’t always appreciate how important tradition is, which is why they sometimes call people names.


3. Calling people names is a low form of talk. Insecure people get a burst of sick joy when they run someone else down, but they don’t advance their argument and will never convince neutral observers.

4. If you are a conservative, you don’t need to resort to name-calling. Just say that you believe such-and-such because it is a tradition. To prove your argument, show that it is a real tradition that has served us well for many years. Explain that to change something that works is risky. Don’t try to beat the liberals at point-by-point analysis; that’s their game, not yours.

5. Yes, many traditions are long-forgotten, and traditionalists do not always know the reasons that we do things the old ways. That’s why we call it “tradition.” That’s OK. What traditionalists can do is to study history.

P.S.: Years ago, I published an article about how the argument from tradition can be valuable. To read it, go to and use Harpine + tradition as your search words.

P.P.S.: It’s good for Americans to learn their traditions. Some of the most satisfying years of my youth were spent reading hundreds – no, thousands – of pages of the writings of our nation’s founders. If you want to know our traditions, there is no substitute for going to the source. Instead of calling people names, our noble conservative friends might click on these links:

P.P.S.: Finally, readers who want to read Trump’s despicable “Rocket Man” speech can find it here. And here is the debate transcript of one of the many times he called Senator Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted.”