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Collins shows how to make a winning argument

October 12, 2018

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

I am reasonably certain that most people at Bowdoin were disappointed at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. Most were probably not only disappointed, but angry, at the role Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) played in his confirmation.

Nonetheless, I urge you to both watch and read the speech she gave on the floor of the United States Senate. Not because it will change your mind, but because it is a model of how to make and win a policy argument. The lesson is not ideology, but in how to present one’s beliefs in a manner that is most likely to produce results.

First, Collins put the entire debate in context. She noted that the moment his name was announced interest groups were instantly ready with their condemnation statements. One news group even forgot to delete the XXX they had as a placeholder for the name of the nominee. The point was that the issue never was Kavanaugh; it was always about raw political power.

Second, Collins methodically went through the complaints about Kavanaugh’s judicial philosophy. Abortion rights. Gay rights. Health care. The rule of law and the President. On and on.  In each case she did not tackle the complaint by counter-assertion but by citing chapter and verse from the opinions Kavanaugh has written. The case against Kavanaugh was built by labeling him an “extremist” and, as Collins noted, those charges were repeated time and again without supporting evidence until they became conventional wisdom. This process has become known in social psychology as The Big Lie.

Third, she turned to the behavior of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s supposed supporters to show how they effectively threw her under the bus (my words, not hers). Ford’s overriding wish was for confidentiality. Standard operating procedure in the case of the letter Ford sent would have been to forward it to the FBI as Kavanaugh’s background check was being conducted with strict instructions regarding confidentiality. As Ranking Member with oversight over the FBI, Senator Diane Feinstein’s wishes in this regard should have been heeded scrupulously. But her office did not follow standard procedure. They held onto the letter, saving it for the right moment.

That right moment came when someone on Feinstein’s staff leaked the letter to the Washington Post. This exposed Ford’s name to the public and by doing so virtually required that she would have to appear in public. Worse, Ford herself testified under oath that she was never informed either by her counsel (who had been recommended by Feinstein’s staff) or by Feinstein’s staff of Chairman Chuck Grassley’s offer to have all of her testimony done confidentially, behind closed doors. Grassley literally left it up to Ford how she wanted to proceed, but Ford was kept in the dark about that offer. Again, Collins’s purpose was to highlight that despite the assertions of Kavanaugh’s opponents, their behavior was not pro-women or pro-victim but power driven.

Fourth, she turned to Ford’s claims with which she expressed strong sympathy.  But there was a lack of corroborating evidence. All of the people that Ford herself had named as attending the party denied that they were there. No one came forward to say that they offered Ford a ride home, despite the party being 10 miles from her house. There were lots of pieces in Ford’s testimony that did not make sense, even though she presented a compelling story that was easy to empathize with. The issue, in Collins’s argument, is one of threshold. She argued that all victims needed to be heard, but that did not mean that with an absence of corroborating evidence that a claim was enough. She also rejected the standard advanced by many Republicans that the standard should be “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That was appropriate for a criminal trial, but this was not one. Her standard was “more likely than not” and she concluded with extensive documentation why she came down on the side of “not.”

Had any of the Kavanaugh’s opponents presented such a comprehensive and fact-based analysis and done so in such a calm manner, he would never have been confirmed. But none did.  Moreover, none even tried. This left an impression, rightly or wrongly, that they did not because they could not. This should be an important lesson to any student seeking to go into the policy making process.

Collins reminded those of us with a sense of history of another female Senator from Maine: Margaret Chase Smith. Like Collins, Smith was a liberal Republican. And like Collins she was well known as a very independent minded individual. In 1950 Smith gave a speech called “A Declaration of Conscience.” It called out Senator Joe McCarthy and his supporters for smearing individuals simply through accusation, without corroborating evidence. That speech is often marked as the beginning of the end for McCarthy. And given that this was the height of the Cold War, it took great courage to deliver it.

There is no question that today there are sexual predators, some in positions of power in politics, sports, academia and the entertainment industry. There is also no question that in 1950 there were Communists in similar positions of power. That issue was put to rest both by the Verona papers and by access to the Kremlin archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But, just because there were Communists around didn’t mean that everyone who was accused of being a Communist was one. And just because there are sexual predators around doesn’t mean that everyone who is accused of being one actually is. Judgments must be made on an individual-by-individual basis based on evidence.

Smith and Collins both expressed one other important point: the need for civility. Washington has been under siege during this confirmation battle. Mobs of people formed outside Senators’ houses, hounded them out of restaurants and accosted them in the halls of the Senate office buildings. The volume was loud and the attempts at physical intimidation were transparent. Collins critiqued this tactic.

But her critique is also applicable to the question of how to make and win an argument. Loud volume, chanting, name-calling and physical intimidation are merely suggestive of a lack of rational argument. If rational argument existed, why the emotion? Of course, intimidation tactics have succeeded at points in world history in shutting down one’s opponents. But whenever that happened, the end game for society was invariably tragic. In this case, the mob tactics backfired, unifying the Republican Conference to unite against the intimidation, for as Benjamin Franklin said, if we don’t hang together we most assuredly will all hang separately.

I commend Collins as an example not because of what side she was on but for very practical reasons: she exemplified how arguments should be presented. Not loudly or physically and not emotionally or by deception. But, by comprehensive and logical reasoning backed up by facts. That is a lesson for individuals of any political persuasion.

Larry Lindsey is a member of the class of 1976 and an honorary member of the class of 1993.

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10 comments:

  1. James Pierce, Bowdoin 1969 says:

    Larry, I think you’ve been drinking too much of the GOP Kool-Aide lately. One either believes Dr. Ford’s testimony to be creditable, or one allies with her GOP cronies. Senator Collins reminds me of the lyrics from “Day Tripper: She’s a big teaser, she took me half the way there.” Indeed, Senator Collins has made an art form of this, uttering sympathetic bleatings to her constituents while obeying the dog whistles of McConnell and Trump every time. I and other Maine voters refuse to fall for her tricks again and wish her farewell in 2020.

  2. Bowdoin '22 says:

    Watch Angus King’s speech…now that’s a winning argument.

  3. BJL says:

    Larry,
    I miss you! Your commentary was almost as good as Senator Collins’ speech. It reminds me of the time when Bowdoin was an institution of higher learning.

  4. Sam '18 says:

    While Collins’ argument may have been convincing to some, the disappointment and anger many (including myself) felt regarding her vote is certainly justified. Rather than act like the “independent minded individual” you believe her to be, Collins sounded more like a highly partisan individual to me, repeating talking points of McConnell and Grassley. For example, she neglected to acknowledge that, while liberal special interest groups were quick to attack Kavanaugh, far more “dark money” was spent by pro-Kavanaugh groups who cared little whether or not he committed sexual assault. Additionally, the author commended Collins for a “fact-based analysis,” yet quite a bit of her speech was deceptive at best. For example, Collins’ cited that the American Bar Association had given Kavanaugh its “highest possible rating,” but neglected to mention that they were reconsidering this rating in light of his behavior at the hearing.

    I believe Dr. Ford, but even if one insists that her accusations be proven to be “more likely than not” true (as Collins did, a cheap cop-out considering she was more than satisfied with the extremely limited FBI investigation), there were plenty of other reasons to oppose Kavanaugh. During the hearing, Kavanaugh showed ill temperament, cited conspiracies theories involving the Clintons, and responded “Have you?” rather than respond to Senator Klobuchar’s question whether he had ever been blackout drunk. Collins addressed none of this in her speech, which certainly qualifies as deceptive.

    As someone who disapproves strongly of the Republican refusal to consider Merrick Garland, I did not see any moral way the Democrats could prevent Trump from appointing Kennedy’s successor. Yet by all means, there were plenty of options better than Brett Kavanaugh who could have easily been appointed with at least a small degree of bipartisan support. I wish Collins had displayed such “independent minded” thinking and attempted to persuade the senate to appoint a more honorable man to a lifetime position.

  5. Rachel Kabasakalian McKay, Bowdoin parent says:

    Larry Lindsey’s position is both troubling and disingenuous. First, he collapses the early political opposition to Kavanaugh with the concern about the implications of Ford’s accusations of assault. In regard to the first, he opines that early opposition was “never about Kavanaugh,” but about “raw political power.” Politics is not only about power, but about beliefs about what is fair and just. Those who opposed Kavanaugh from the beginning would quite reasonably have opposed other nominees who espoused similar positions, because they believe them harmful to persons or groups of persons in our democracy.

    Once Ford’s accusations surfaced, the urgent question was whether he had actually assaulted a woman. Lindsey’s argument about “calm, reasonable” statements is disingenuous: none of the Democratic senators on the judiciary committee came close to the enraged outburst of Lindsay Graham; Ford on the stand was emotional but eminently reasonable, while Kavanaugh was hysterical and entitled. Lindsey not only distorts the way the hearings actually played out, but the way power can be wielded cruelly and illegally with a whisper: like the one with which Merrick Garland’s nomination was flagrantly ignored; like the hand over the mouth of a terrified woman.

    • Arnold Horshack says:

      Please! The Democrats have a rich history if ignoring sex scandals (or worse) by their own politicians: Jack Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank, Bob Menendez, Bill Clinton. The list goes on and on. Susan Collins spoke truth to power, and called out the Democrats for their shameless fake outrage over Dr. Ford’s wholly uncorroborated allegations.

    • Anna Martens '20 says:

      To Mrs McKay: thank you for writing. I too was surprised by the double-standard–Kavanaugh and Senator Graham did not seem to abide by the expectation for objectivity and an even temper. (Also argued by Mr Treadwell below.)

      To Arnold Horshack: to be perfectly clear, the phrase “shameless fake outrage” is precisely what people are talking about when they say survivors do not feel respected nor safe. These “Democrats” who are responding emotionally to the allegations are not necessarily responding due to their ideological stance. Many people (of all political persuasions) are responding strongly because of fear. Women and survivors both feel threatened by the comments that are being thrown around. Whether or not the accusations are true, the way they have been handled is despicable. Instead of a (heated, but fair) political debate, we have landed in name calling and dangerous insinuations.

      I respect the argument that it is not only Republicans who have concealed or dismissed sexual assault. In fact, concealing and dismissing are precisely part of the national “rape culture” that allows situations like this to occur in the first place. But please, please, please evaluate your word choices more thoughtfully and do not respond solely from a place of irritation or discomfort, because your words have real impact. Painting survivors’ and women’s fear as “fake outrage” is diminishing, rude, and just plain scary.

    • Joe says:

      ^ this comment by Mr. Horshack is textbook whataboutism combined with an egregious false equivalence. Neither are great positions to take.

  6. David Treadwell '64 says:

    The author conveniently neglected three reasons why Kavanaugh should have been turned down: 1. His outburst showed he lacks the proper temperament. 2. The words he used in his outburst showed he is far from politically neutral; and 3. His lies, both minor and not so minor, under oath disqualify him.

  7. Chris says:

    The problem with media and politics today is the paralyzing bias which seems to stun anyone and everyone whom may disagree with the facts. I find it somewhat perplexing that people are realizing just now that our society is bias. Gosh, have we been living under a rock? Bias and inability to compromise has occurred since the beginning of recorded human civilization.


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