A tremendous proportion of the political case partisans make against the other side's leaders comes down to, "He said something terrible." Think about how many times you've seen a campaign ad keyed off of an offhand remark a candidate made. "Congressman Winklebrain says strangling puppies is 'acceptable.' Do we want a puppy-strangler in Congress?" Barack Obama said people cling to guns and religion! John McCain said "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran"! John Kerry said he voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it! Al Gore said he invented the Internet! Especially in campaigns, we spend a lot of time arguing about just how awful something somebody said was, with the other side always claiming that a single statement revealed the evil lying within the candidate's heart.
Part of this has to do with the fact that a lot of what politicians do is talk, so their words are the main thing we have to judge them on. This is particularly true of candidates, who when running for an office for the first time haven't yet had the opportunity to do anything. But it's even true of presidents. As Jon Chait notes this morning, conservatives are practically obsessed with the idea that Barack Obama is insufficiently convinced of America's encompassing super-awesomeness.* "The entire root of this attack line," Chait explains, "stems from a single sentence by Obama, endlessly repeated on the right: 'I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.' You see!, conservatives say -- he thinks American exceptionalism is no more valid than any other country's national pride!" As Chait explains, in that statement, Obama went on to detail all the reasons America is unique, but conservatives can't seem to see beyond that one sentence.
But it's more than just taking a sentence out of context. The point isn't just that Obama once said something that, interpreted in a particular way, could be understood to mean he thinks America isn't No. 1 for all time. It's that this one statement is the only one that matters. You could easily go through Obama's speeches and comments and come up with dozens and dozens of occasions on which he's proclaimed America's terrificness. But in order to believe that the above statement is the one that matters, you have to either pretend the others don't exist or make a different argument: When he said those other things, he was covering up his true beliefs, but when he said the statement I think is important, he was revealing his true beliefs.
This is a process that begins with the conclusion, then searches for some evidence. I'm not saying that liberals don't do this too, because they do. But the next time you hear someone say, "This awful thing I want you to conclude about this politician's innermost character and beliefs is proved by one thing he said one time," you should be skeptical, even if you are inclined toward the conclusion that the statement validates your suspicions.
*Or as Sean Hannity so eloquently puts it, "The U.S. is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the earth." Stephen Colbert explains:
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-- Paul Waldman