If so, we missed it. And that’s a shame, particularly for a prominent Jewish politician…
If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing Mrs. Wasserman Schultz, allow us to provide a few representative examples of her rhetorical stylings. In this clip from 2005, Mrs. Wasserman Schultz compares Republicans to an elephant bobble-head doll that can only nod “yes” to then-President Bush, the House Leader, and oil executives. Here she accuses Paul Ryan of trying to “pull the rug out” from under seniors. And here she says that the Republican Party has always been anti-woman.
As should be obvious from those clips, Mrs. Wasserman Schultz is bright, engaging, and very good at making her point. And South Floridians know she commands an extremely loyal following down in that neck of the woods. But, for exactly those reasons, her political style disappoints us here at TJP.com.
Every politician faces a very basic choice when deciding how to debate policy. One either focuses on the policy or on the people behind it. One can recognize that his or her opponents generally have good intentions, even if their policies are, in one’s opinion, totally wrong. Alternatively, one can accuse opponents of, say, wanting the elderly to “f*ck off and eat cat food“.
The cat food approach has its tawdry charms. Lobbing bombs at opponents makes it easier to build loyal bases because it forms an us-against-them group mentality. And a politician will naturally want to earn pats on the back from such a group; sticking it to the enemy will accomplish that. Focusing on policy, however, leaves room for cooperation and negotiation between opponents and fosters rational debate. It hinders group formation, but precisely because it encourages independent thought.
It should go without saying that Mrs. Wasserman Schultz is hardly the only politician to take the low ground here; argumentum ad hominem ain’t in Latin because it’s new. Indeed, even many of the higher-minded proponents of ratifying the U.S. Constitution routinely opined that anti-federalists were motivated by selfish desires, such as to retain personal power in their state offices.
We single out Mrs. Wasserman Schultz for two reasons. First, it seems curious to us that Democrats — and particularly President Obama, who elevated Mrs. Wasserman Shultz to the Chair of the DNC — would embrace her style as comfortably as they apparently have. In Mr. Obama’s first inaugural address, he called for “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.” But Mrs. Wasserman Schultz isn’t post-partisan; she’s uber-partisan.
But more to our particular mandate here at TJP, we find Mrs. Wasserman Schultz’s style particularly dischordant with a crucial Jewish theme.
The Jewish tradition is based on dogged, often heated debate in pursuit of the truth. The fundamental sources of Jewish law (particularly the Talmud) are replete with such debates. But those dialogues are not just stories: intense — but still theoretical — debate is actually ensconced in Jewish hermeneutics itself. The traditional zug (pair, commonly referred to as a chavrusa) style of talmudic learning partners two students who are encouraged to battle out differing abstract theories of a text. The Rishonim liken this process to two swords sharpening each other. (See Rashi and Ralbag on Mishlei 27:17.) (Nor has the power of theoretical debate ever been limited to the beis midrash. Neils Bohr (born a Jew, raised a Christian) and Albert Einstein famously debated the core of quantum mechanics while remaining close friends. Bohr later sought out Richard Feynman for the very fact that Feynman was emotionally capable of arguing with him, while other physicists were too in awe of Bohr to disagree with him.)
But the productivity of the zug is based on its focus on theory. If attacks become personal, students become unable to admit intellectual defeat and therefore to advance toward truth. A productive debate requires a degree of humility; not deference to another person, but the will to approach the truth by being proven wrong.
That humbleness is wholly lacking in the rhetoric of many politicians, including Mrs. Wasserman Schultz.
American politics is all about checks and balances and coalition building. Our system was built to be one big zug. But there is one simple way in which any politician can improve America singlehandedly, requiring the consent of no one, and a coalition of one: use the podium to attack the policy, not the people.