Gingrich Lesson in Debate Technique: “Repeat Changers”

With so much talk about how great a debater New Gingrich is, why not watch to learn a little about rhetoric and style from the gentleman from Georgia?

Today’s lesson comes from a recent Republican presidential debate in which Rick Santorum accused Newt Gingrich of being a little grandiose at times. The key word here is “grandiose,” and it was meant to sting.

A skilled debater listens carefully for an opportunity to use a rhetorical device that Jay Heinrichs calls the “repeat changer.” Sometimes that opportunity looks and sounds more like a grave misfortune—worthy of a grunt at best, and a look of terror at worst. The repeat changer repeats the key word or phrase that was used to demean and changes its sense to reflect favorably on the original target.

When Rick Santorum described Newt as someone who can be a bit grandiose at times, he meant that Newt often exaggerates to an absurd extent and often thinks of himself in exaggerated terms. He thus sought to tap into public consciousness, shaped to a degree by recent media focus on . . . . well, Newt’s occasional grandiosity.

How did Newt respond? He did the best thing anyone can do under the circumstance: he repeated the accusation, then switched its sense, suggesting that someone may be considered grandiose because he has grand ideas, and lots of them, for improving things for the American people.

Now this may sound like equivocation. To be sure, the repeat changer does often trade on ambiguity. When it does, it is less effective. But if the shift in sense is mild—as opposed to sharp—there is no harm and no foul. In other words, no fallacy has been committed.

This can be illustrated on one interpretation of Newt Gingrich’s clever rejoinder to Rick Santorum. The basic sense of Santorum’s jibe is preserved, but Newt suggests that Santorum only thinks that Newt is grandiose because Rick is uncomfortable with the grandeur of Newt’s ideas. “Grandiosity” and “grandeur” do differ. But “grandeur” may be mistaken for “grandiosity” by someone who can’t tell the difference. If this is what Newt was getting at, his move was not merely clever, it was ingenious. He might be asking voters, in effect, “Do you want a president who has grand ideas that some confuse with grandiosity, or do you want a president who can’t tell the difference between grand and grandiose?”

In my book, rhetoric has its proper place, especially in public discourse. But it must always be tempered by virtue. So I commend the “repeat changer” when it can be managed without violating the moral and intellectual virtues.

Here’s a poll for you to register your opinion:

Protesting Governor Scott Walker May Backfire on Liberals

Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill Protest: Scott Wa...

Image by mrbula via Flickr

There’s turmoil in Madison, Wisconsin, as some public school teachers and others protest the efforts of Governor Scott Walker to curtail excessive state spending on state employee benefits. From a distance, this looks like a bad play by liberal Democrats.

  • Teachers who have left their jobs to protest at the state’s capitol may be breaking the law and may pay a price for doing so.
  • 14 Democrat legislators who have left the state in order to prevent a vote on the Governor’s proposals may not last long in their elected positions.
  • The antics of protesters in Wisconsin have brought national attention to the debacle, and these protesters are at risk of a backlash in public sentiment across the nation.
  • With the substantial visibility of Governor Walker’s boldness, and the prospects for his success, other states in fiscal trouble may be emboldened to adopt similar measures.

These probably would not be welcome effects of the protest movement in Wisconsin, among those actually protesting. But there is an even more significant possibility they may not have anticipated.

  • Governor Scott Walker has been propelled to national attention and has become a symbol of broad national support for greater fiscal responsibility and bolder leadership to achieve that end. Protesters have generated greater interest in Governor Walker as an icon of conservative politics. A figure who was unknown outside Wisconsin only a week ago is now a national icon. If he succeeds in Wisconsin, he may be a compelling candidate for national leadership. He may even be scrutinized as possible presidential timber. Imagine that! With every ounce of continued protest, the governor’s critics run a greater risk of showcasing the governor’s achievement if he prevails.

If the governor of Wisconsin prevails, his example may galvanize a cadre of conservative politicians to step up with ever bolder measures. The conservative movement could be on the cusp of new energy, so far unprecedented. That would truly be significant, given the already substantial inroads that have been made by conservatives among the electorate.

Who Is the Commander in Chief?

So it’s official . . . kind of. Major Hasan is a zealot for “radical Islam,” and people knew it. Doesn’t give you too much faith in the system, does it?

In an earlier post about the Fort Hood incident, I suggested that the question is: How could this happen? Though I suspected it then, it’s obvious now that part of the answer is our faith in political correctness. Yes, PC is an abstract concept, not a person. So having faith in it sounds preposterous. So what I should say is that because of the insidious influence of PC, we have faith in people we never should trust. PC blinds us to the importance of knowing whom we trust.

I did not knowingly trust Maj. Hasan. But I surely did indirectly. More important, the people he gunned down trusted him. That trust has always seemed warranted and invulnerable to suspicion. Not any more. Read more of this post

Twitter Me Mad

twitter-imageCall me crazy. I’ve now entered the world of twittering.

Paid to Be a Genius

How would you like to receive one half million dollars just for being clever?

If you play the saxophone or invent musical instruments, if you write novels or restore old cathedrals, if you propose “insightful interpretations of hieroglyphic inscriptions and figural art” or design stage lighting, you could be eligible.

There’s only one catch: you have to be the best and you have to be noticed by the MacArthur Foundation.

James McPherson-1981 Fellow

James McPherson-1981 Fellow

Today the Foundation named 25 new MacArthur Fellows and will award each one $500,000 during the next five years in appreciation of their talents. Jonathan Fanton, President of the Foundation, explains the purpose of this award:

The MacArthur Fellows Program celebrates extraordinarily creative individuals who inspire new heights in human achievement. With their boldness, courage, and uncommon energy, this new group of Fellows, men and women of all ages in diverse fields, exemplifies the boundless nature of the human mind and spirit.

For the Foundation’s press release and the complete list of newly minted Fellows, click here. You might want to congratulate these individuals with a personal email message.

Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from you in response to two questions:

  1. Are you personally acquainted with anyone who would be a good candidate for this kind of award?
  2. If you could nominate three individuals to be considered by the MacArthur Foundation, who would they be?

Using the Combox As Your Soapbox

Most bloggers welcome comments at their posts. Some even plead for comments. Many bloggers, as I do, have a “Comments Policy” and moderate comments before letting them through. But this should not discourage you from commenting on a blog post.

This post has two objectives: (1) to encourage blog readers to practice using the “combox” and (2) to offer some tips for making the most of the opportunity to comment.

Reasons to Comment

  1. Commenting helps the blogger gauge the value of his or her posts. If a blank box appears at the end of a post, that’s a virtual invitation from the author to chime in with your response. If no one ever comments, the blogger may conclude that the traffic at his or her site is mostly accidental and that readers are mostly indifferent to what the blogger has written. Zero response does not entail zero interest. But it doesn’t indicate interest, either.
  2. Commenting allows your voice to be heard in the public square, even if you’re not a blogger yourself. The common good depends on participation in dialog with others. Sipping sodas with your best pal and talking politics is a different kind of exercise than packaging your thoughts for broader consumption.
  3. Commenting encourages others to comment. I’ve known plenty of students who don’t want to be the first to ask a question or make a comment in class. Sometimes the period for class discussion begins with several moments of awkward silence. But once a student breaks the ice, others have no trouble jumping in.
  4. Commenting helps you discover and clarify your own ideas. When I begin to write, I usually have some sense of what I want to say. But this general goal congeals into something more specific during the act of writing. Putting my thoughts in writing helps clear the cobwebs in my thinking. So I benefit from my writing, even if my readers don’t. The same goes for blog commenting.
  5. Commenting gives others an opportunity to benefit from what you have to say. Your comments don’t have to be brilliant to be valued by others. Often, the simplest observations are the most useful. There’s actually a good reason to think that the best comments come from readers who are most reluctant to comment. If they push past their reluctance, they may be more likely to make a thoughtful or encouraging or provocative or practical contribution.
  6. Commenting ensures that you reflect on what you read, and so your reading investment pays greater dividends.
  7. Commenting promotes discussion. Sooner or later you’ll find others commenting on your comments. The original author of the post may recede into the background while others carry on a conversation with each other about the topic of the post. This kind of give-and-take yields several benefits. It tests the clarity of your writing as you hear what others think in response to your comments. If properly moderated, it exemplifies respectful discourse among people who disagree and reinforces this important conversational skill. It can be edifying as you see how others benefit from your ideas. It can even lead to new online relationships. A blog post can function like the old-fashioned water cooler at the office, as a place where people, who otherwise might never meet up, interact with each other, learn of common interests, and make new friends.

So there are plenty of reasons to step into the fray now and then as you graze the blogosphere for morsels of insight, entertainment, education, and tips for improving your life in some way or other. No doubt there are many other reasons to comment on blog posts. If you think of any, why not share them in the combox below?

Tips for Commenting

So how do you do it? How do you join the party and realize the benefits described above?

Let’s face it—this isn’t rocket science. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s better if it isn’t. But here are a few suggestions that might make commenting more enjoyable for you and those who stumble across (rather than over) your words.

  1. Think about why you went to this post in the first place. Was it accidental? The result of a targeted search? Recommended by someone you know? What pathway led you there? And what did you expect to find in the post? As you read the post you’ll be measuring it against the expectations you bring to it. These are things to write about.
  2. Notice any new thoughts you have as you read the post. Your comment at the end of the post becomes a record of these thoughts that might be lost forever if you don’t put them in writing when you have them. (There are ways to aggregate your comments at various posts across multiple websites.)
  3. Track your feelings while reading the post. In a post about “Leaving the Perfect Comment,” Teli Adlam suggests that you ask how you felt after reading the entry. By paying attention to feelings you have, you gain insight into yourself. Reading the post may have surfaced an internal response that you didn’t expect to have. This gives you something to write about.
  4. Evaluate the argument of a post. Many bloggers offer arguments for claims they make. The combox presents an opportunity for you to assess the argument. You might challenge some premise or evidence used to support the claim. You might offer additional evidence in support of the claim. You can do this whether or not you agree with the conclusion. And you can do it without being belligerent, so don’t hold back. When I “blog an argument” for something, I know the claim and the argument are being released into the broadest possible arena. Why would I risk this? Partly to test the strength of my beliefs or ideas. Partly to see whether my reasons are persuasive to others (something I won’t know unless there are responses in the combox).
  5. Interact with comments others have made. Keep the conversation going. See where it leads. You may want to subscribe to receive email alerts when new comments are made to a post of special interest. Learn about aggregating all your comments across WordPress blogs here.
  6. Be positive. Think of ways to affirm the blogger and others who comment. You can do this without agreeing with their claims or approving of their suggestions.
  7. Proofread your comments before you hit the submit button. Put your best foot forward. Correct any untoward typos or grammatical goofs. Note: If comments are moderated by the blogmaster for the site you’re on, your comment will be screened by the moderator before it appears at the end of the post. Some editors will make minor edits, either to correct typos, repair sentence structure, cull unwelcome language, or what have you. If you know that your comment will be screened, you can ask the screener, right there in your comment, for assistance with your submission.

I’ve given seven reasons to use the combox when you read blog posts, and seven suggestions for leaving your mark. Think of the combox as your soapbox, a socially accepted way to be heard on things that matter to you and others.


Here’s a bonus tip: Express yourself with passion. You may not relish the media spotlight. But you probably care about things that pop up on this blog, or you wouldn’t be here. David Avran’s advice makes sense even when it comes to leaving comments at a blog post. Messages that stir meet three invigorating criteria: relevance, credibility, and passion. Go for it!


Patsi, over at the Blog Squad, describes proper blog etiquette for leaving comments.

Quotes on Culture Warfare

“We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict. Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills. Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere. Why? Maybe it’s because deep down under the chatter we have come to a place where we know that we don’t know . . . anything. But nobody’s willing to say that.” —John Patrick Shanley, Preface to his play Doubt: A Parable.

“No matter what side of an argument you’re on, you always find some people on your side that you wish were on the other side.” —Jascha Heifetz

“John McCain Owes Michelle Obama an Apology”—Not

Barack Obama is disappointed in John McCain. In the ensuing months, he may have to get used to disappointment. Especially if he’s going to use his media opportunities to demand apologies from McCain for things he hasn’t done. First time at bat in this game, Senator Obama is disappointed that Senator McCain has not denounced the rumor and innuendo that Mrs. Obama (do we still call our First Ladies “Mrs.”?) used the racist word “whitey” in a speech some years ago. But rumor has it that it was someone close to Hillary Clinton who threw the first pitch, presumably in an effort to discredit Senator Obama during the Democrat primaries.

So what has Senator McCain done wrong in this inning? His sin is one of omission rather than commission: he hasn’t had the decency to denounce the scurrilous rumor. Must McCain now monitor every negative thing that’s said about the Obamas and use his own media opportunities to distance himself from the source of each rumor? Come on—this is the Big Leagues. Champions don’t play ball in the sandbox.

Whether he should be the next President or not, it surely is clear that McCain does not owe the Obamas a public expression of sympathy in this matter. McCain should ignore the other Senator’s challenge. Here’s why:

First, McCain’s credentials as a man of fairness do not depend on what other people say about his political opponents, unless those other people speak in some suitably official sense on his behalf.

Second, Mr. Obama has insinuated that Mr. McCain is comfortable with putting families under the microscope during Presidential campaigns, and Obama assumes that this is a no-no. But this tactic is misleading. Certainly, there is a tradition of respecting the privacy of a candidate’s children, especially if they are young children. Older children who campaign for a parent deservedly come under closer scrutiny. But in Big League campaigns—like campaigning for President of the United States—spouses naturally come under public scrutiny. There are several legitimate and important reasons for this:

  • A President’s spouse is, presumably, an intimate life-partner and a reflection on the President’s values and wisdom when making substantive decisions.
  • In recent years, it’s come to light that Presidential wives influence policy through their relationships with their husbands. (We’ve also seen the potential for a Presidential spouse to blackmail her high-profile and politically powerful mate, should he violate a sacred trust.)
  • Presidential wives have exercised considerable independent leadership on issues of national interest, exploiting (rightly or wrongly) the opportunity created by virtue of nuptial relations with the President.
  • A President’s spouse is a key ambassador to the world and a barometer of what is best about America. American citizens have a vested interest in how their First Lady represents them.

That last point leads to a third reason why McCain should not swing at Obama’s pitch. It’s likely that a non-trivial number of Americans would like to know whether Michelle Obama actually spoke (or mis-spoke) as alleged. And public opinion has to be respected by candidates for high office.

The influential role of public opinion isn’t some necessary evil made inevitable by democracy. The influence of public opinion is a public good, especially when it is well-informed opinion. It is one of the few means available for the electorate to hold its leaders (or would-be leaders) accountable. Some political leaders have been remarkably obtuse about this. Ours is an open society in ways unimaginable just decades ago. Still, an astonishing number of politicians today behave in an impolitic manner, as if no one will notice.

Barack Obama’s decision to bait John McCain may prove to be a strategic error, for it’s likely to encourage the electorate to make more deliberate comparisons between Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain. Who can be predict what that will mean? The two woman are conspicuously different in many respects. Polling the electorate on this point probably won’t be very illuminating, since many people would consider questions about potential First Ladies to be indelicate, even if their Presidential preference is influenced by impressions they have of candidates’ wives. And Obama’s recent comments suggest that he prefers to re-direct focus on his wife.

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