Monday, March 05, 2007

Mistaken and Wasted

Two small words -- "mistake" and "waste" -- have played a big role in the political rhetoric of the past several weeks. Working on the assumption that smart people can always learn from their mistakes (heck, even the mouse finds the cheese in the maze), I'm baffled by why three reasonably bright senators -- Obama, Clinton and McCain -- found themselves in various degrees of trouble over their use or non-use of these words.

Obama: " . . . and have seen over 3000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted."

McCain: "We've wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives."

The Clinton Exchange:

Roger Tilton: "I want to know if right here, right now, once and for all and without nuance, you can say that war authorization was a mistake. I, and I think a lot of other primary voters — until we hear you say it, we're not going to hear all the other great things you are saying."

Sen. Hillary Clinton: Well I have said, and I will repeat it, that knowing what I know now, I never would have voted for it. But I also (applause), I mean obviously you have to weigh everything as you make your decision. I have taken responsibility for my vote. The mistakes were made by this president who misled this country and this Congress into a war that should not have been waged.
The first entry in the American Heritage Dictionary of the intransitive verb "waste" is "To use, consume, spend, or expend thoughtlessly or carelessly. " In that sense, not only were Senators Obama and McCain correct in their description, but they were being charitable toward the Bush Administration. It would be hard to argue with the proposition that the thousands of soldiers who have been killed, not to mention the many more who have been physically and psychologically maimed, suffered those fates at least as a result of Neocon thoughtlessness, and I would argue that the losses were affirmatively reckless. Criticism of Obama flew quickly, and Obama recanted, saying that he had misspoken; there was less criticism of McCain, but he backtracked as well. Soundbites can quickly shift the dynamic of political discourse, and in this case the subtle shift was to pretend as though Obama and McCain had said something different from what they actually said. The discourse assumed that each had said that the lives themselves, or the people who lived them, were "waste", in the sense of "garbage" or "trash" (the fifth noun definition). But look closely at what the paradigm shift did: it moved the debate from the issue of who did the wasting -- the Bush Administration did that -- to a debate of whether the soldiers themselves were "waste".

Why then, is Senator Clinton tied up in such knots over whether to concede a "mistake"? After all, we all make mistakes; it's no shame to admit that you've made one, and John Edwards' MO these days is to introduce himself as though he were in some kind of 12-step program, where you start off by saying, "I'm John Edwards and I made a mistake." The first definition of mistake -- same source, as it's the one that's readily available at dictionary.com -- is "An error or fault resulting from defective judgment, deficient knowledge, or carelessness." And it seems to me pretty clear that while she didn't exercise either defective judgment or carelessness, she readily admits that she made "an error . . . resulting from . . . deficient knowledge", which is a mistake in the sense that most people understand it.

Senator Clinton certainly paid attention in her first-year Contracts course, where she learned the two different types of factual mistakes cognizable in law: the unilateral mistake and the mutual mistake. The unilateral mistake doctrine -- where she gave her vote in support of the war authority resolution on the mistaken belief that there was [feel free to fill in your own version of the Administration's war rationale here] -- offers a defense where the Administration knows that the senator is acting under a mistaken belief and then takes advantage of that mistake. It doesn't seem to me, though, that Senator Clinton is harking back to that kind of mistake, because she says that " [t]he mistakes were made by this president who misled this country and this Congress into a war . . . ." In other words, there wasn't really a mistake; there was fraud in the inducement. But if you attribute slightly less animus to the Administration, then you're in the realm of mutual mistake, and then Senator Clinton's defense to formation needs to be that both she and the Administration were mistaken. But in either event, there has to be a mistake on her end.

So why is she so resistant to the idea of using the word "mistake"? I think that she is confusing the erroneous outcome with the process that resulted in that outcome. The mistake that the public seems to want her to acknowledge was the vote itself, which was arrived at as a result of deficient knowledge. Instead, she focuses on her own thought processes with respect to that vote, and then rejects the idea of a mistake either because she rejects the notion of having exercised "defective judgment" or "carelessness", or she rejects having had a "misconception or misunderstanding". (defn 2.) In other words, in perceiving the use of the word as an attack on her as a thoughtful person, rather than an attack on the process, she's doing to herself what the critics of Obama did to Obama in the "wasted" debate. Indeed, you can see the shift in the Tilton question and her response. Tilton asks whether "war authorization was a mistake". He didn't ask, "Did you make a mistake in voting for the war authorization?" Yet Senator Clinton seems to have assumed that he asked the unasked question of whether she made the mistake, because she answers, "The mistakes were made by this president", leaving unarticulated the words, "I did not make that mistake." By either misinterpreting or recharacterizing the question, therefore, Senator Clinton has created a problem for herself where none existed before.