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.

16 comments:

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

I hate to say it, but I think it's likely that Clinton sees the burden in a way I couldn't as a man. Society allows men a lot more leeway when it comes to making mistakes, I think.

Take a car-wreck scenario. I think there is an underlying mentality in certain corners that makes it acceptable for a man to get in a car accident -- "wow, that was cool. You totaled that guy's bumper". But when a woman gets in a wreck, she bears added burden; she's fighting the stereotype that women "can't drive" and all that BS.

So whereas a man can actually REINFORCE his stature (oddly) via my car example, a woman starts the race behind the starting line. So when a woman admits a mistake in this context, it serves to re-affirm her "inferiority".

I'm certainly not saying everybody is like this, but if 15% of the voters are -- well, there's Clinton's motive.

Michael C. Dorf said...

The word "mistake" has taken on a pejorative meaning due to its repeated misuse by politicians. Thus, e.g., Bill Clinton made a "mistake" in his repeated philandering. Yes, this was a "mistake" in the sense of an error in judgment but "I made a mistake" (as opposed to "mistakes were made") has come to be associated with a much more substantial degree of culpability than mere false factual assumption.

Garth said...

"The word "mistake" has taken on a pejorative meaning."

Exactly. Clinton won't admit it because she is afraid of creating the negative soundbite that it will inevitably be used for and, apparently, is willing to suffer the collateral damage of looking stubborn and pig-headed (quite presidential).

I'm sure there's been some serious number crunching behind this calculated stand.

Quite frankly, I'm getting a little tired of hearing about it.

Craig J. Albert said...

In other words, mistake is the "M-Word". Plainly there is a large cohort whose members want to empower the primary meaning of mistake, and disempower the perjorative meaning. (By the way, Mike, you left out a third possibility of mistake: mistake of fact. "I thought it was my wife.")

I don't mean to sound like a boring language geek, but notice that the key concept making this a bad phrase for politicians is the active, transitive nature of the verb: "I made the mistake." It sounds bad when you stand it up against "I cut your taxes" and "I invented the Internet."

Another thing to notice is that the purpose of applying the "mistake" sobriquet to things like the philandering was to downplay the significance of the event that was a mistake, even though the offense might have been one deserving of more culpability. Thus, you'll see the "mistake" or "youthful indiscretion" tag attached to things like drunk driving arrests, membership in clubs that discriminate on the basis or race or sex, or illegal drug use.

Garth said...

The press has seized on this issue of pinning down the candidates on their war vote.

Clinton kept it alive by adopting the ridiculous stance that her vote was not a mistake. She should have said, "Giving the President the benefit of the doubt was the mistake I made." End of story.

This is a momentary press diversion. Hillary won't admit it, everybody move along.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

I like Craig's analysis. I strongly question the following statement, though: "[S]he didn't exercise either defective judgment or carelessness."

I think the whole point is that she exercised defective judgment. Plenty of people saw through the Bush arguments as phony, and plenty of people understood that it was a bad idea to invade under the circumstances as they were understood ex ante. (See, e.g., Obama, Barack H.)

Clinton, Kerry, Edwards, et al. made the craven political calculation that their presidential ambitions required a pro-war vote. Each has tried to undo that damage in different ways. Knowing ex post that Bush's factual assertions were wrong is important; and I'm inclined to give Clinton some credit for saying, "If I'd known then what I know now . . ." Still, that's the easy part (though Kerry wouldn't even say that during the 2004 campaign). Edwards is making the best move he can, given his initial cowardice. Clinton is trying to act as if refusing now to admit the earlier error in judgment is proof of courage. That is sophistry.

Neil H. Buchanan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil H. Buchanan said...

Sorry to pick on Craig twice, but I also have to take issue with the "I invented the internet" reference in his follow-up comment. I hope it's now common knowledge that Gore never said that.

Craig J. Albert said...

Neil is correct that Al Gore didn't actually assert that he "invented the internet"; the actual claim he made was that he "took the initiative in creating the internet". But you get my point.

On the defective judgment or carelessness argument, while I certainly agree in hindsight that what the Congress as a whole did in 2003 looks today to be reckless or careless, and while I would have voted against the resolution in 2003 if I had had a vote, I'm still willing to give individual members the benefit of the doubt on reckless/careless standard, even though I would not give them a pass on the lesser standard of "defective knowledge". I can see, however, how reasonable people might differ on this small point.

To be fair, though, I think that we ought to judge all of the candidates who now admit to a mistake by the same standard. You need to ask Edwards, for example, whether he was mistaken because he operated on the basis of defective knowedlge, or whether he was careless. I will bet a shiny new quarter that he will not say that he was careless.

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