Sunday, October 12, 2003

Shaping Opinion

The administration has recently defended its actions in Iraq more aggressively. The upshot is the cowering media. Witness David Broder and Tom Friedman. Sure, they have their qualms in these pieces, but they seem to have come around to the administration's outlook to the point of even warning Democrats about what they can get away with (not much) regarding criticizing the administration on its war policy. The issues in these two opinion pieces are money, financing, and getting Iraq ready for self-government; the larger moral and political questions of going to war in the first place are now off the table.

This appears to be a successful case of shaping public opinion or what Lincoln called "mold[ing] public sentiment" on the part of the administration. This is often dangerous but sometimes necessary. We live in an age of the "rhetorical presidency" which generally threatens republican government because of its tendency to lapse into demagoguery; Carnes Lord says in his new book that "opinion leadership. . . . . is dangerous fire for democracies to play with."

Nevertheless, the challenges Bush has faced have required a response; and it is not clear that his style is generally so rhetorical anyway. If anything, he has been slow to respond to criticism; certainly nobody would accuse him of Reagan-like rhetorical excellence or of having mastered the skills of what Lord calls "opinion-leadership". He needed to re-iterate his reasons for war in order to reply to his opponents, and he did so appropriately and effectively. Friedman and Broder at least have their tails between their legs as a result. Perhaps Bush's reluctance to be excessively rhetorical has made his words count more when he does utter them.


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