Election Season at HLS Shows LSAT Tests Intellect, Not Intellectual Honesty

Several months ago a friend and I discussed the differences between Harvard Law School and our undergraduate universities.  One story he told me involved an answer he gave to a professor’s question during his 1L year at HLS—one that was not bulletproof, but one which his undergrad classmates would have accepted or dismissed without protest.  At HLS, another student responded and proceeded to dismantle the argument, picking apart every piece of porous reasoning.

That was the major difference, he and I decided, between HLS and our previous schools.  Here, half-baked arguments don’t get a pass and faulty analysis gets called out.  For that reason, HLS students tend to think before they speak or, more commonly, share on Facebook.  For some, however, such self-restraint becomes an impossibly herculean task during election season.

In one scene from Disney’s “Finding Nemo,” Bruce and two other sharks raise their fins and pledge “fish are friends, not food” during a “Fishaholics Anonymous” meeting.  Bruce hasn’t eaten a fish for three weeks, and he appears to have undergone a sincere change of heart.  However, it only takes one sniff of blood for Bruce, like HLS students, to cast aside all discipline and self-restraint, and revert to more base instincts.

In Bruce’s case, it means “I’m having fish tonight!”  In ours, it means saying—or on Facebook, writing or reposting—arguments taken from the Huffington Post, Drudge, or another partisan website or Facebook page that clearly lack reason or a grounding in fact.  My argument isn’t against general opinion statements like “Romney’s handling of women’s issues shows he’s out of touch.”  I argue against specific statements, or adoptions of statements through “likes,” “shares” or oral repetitions, so devoid of rational analysis that I can hardly believe they come from an HLS student.

The statements and postings from HLS students that best illustrate my point come largely from the political left, which is to be expected given the school’s demographics.  Not only do left-leaning individuals have a numerical advantage, but groupthink and unchallenged grandstanding resulting from a largely one-party student body tends to facilitate the abandonment of critical thought.  However, the political right also has its share of perpetrators.  I reproduced statements from HLS students on both sides to illustrate the point:

A banner with a quote from Mitt Romney saying that he didn’t fight in Vietnam because he was “too important.”

The first Google search result of this quote discredited it as coming from a satire piece.  Apparently Iran and Fox News aren’t the only ones that can be duped by The Onion and others who write headlines so titillating to partisans they can’t possibly be true.

Accusations that Todd Akin claimed that women cannot become pregnant from rape, or that he was implying that the commission of rape could be legitimate.

Todd Akin said: “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. . . .  If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  What Mr. Akin said was wrong enough without warping his words.  He may have based his statement on junk science, and he may have been trivializing the horror of rape with his words, but he did not make either of the above statements, nor can they be inferred.   I suspect the students saying so knew this but wanted even more shock value.

A statement that “When Obama took office, gas prices were half of what they are now!”

There’s a good reason for that.  The world economy was in freefall.  That tends to affect gas prices.

A picture of President Obama and Mitt Romney reads under Obama “I passed a law allowing women to get equal pay,” and under Romney “I hired a woman once.”

Both statements mislead, but the one under Mr. Romney in particular fails to accurately or honestly ground itself in what the candidate claims as his credentials on women’s issues.  “I hired a woman once” likely stems from Mitt Romney’s hiring of a large number of women into his cabinet, which he argued showed his support for women in the workplace.  One can argue with that premise without distorting what he said.

A side-by-side comparison of various statistics of President Bush at the end his first term (2004), and President Obama after his (2012), including the GDP growth rate, unemployment rate, and median income, each favoring President Bush.

There was a very important series of events in 2008 that make these sorts of comparisons useless.

A post telling Mitt Romney not to blame gun violence on single parents.

This would be legitimate, except Mitt Romney never did this.  In the second presidential debate, Mitt Romney said (in relation to gun violence): “Wherever possible we need benefit of two parents in the home raising kids… and that’s not always possible—there are a lot of great single moms and dads—but if there’s a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty [and being involved in gun violence] goes down dramatically.”  If you disagree with his reasoning, attack that.  Don’t make a caricature of his position.

Criticism implying that Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” statement means he thinks business owners didn’t work for what they had.

I think we can all agree that President Obama meant to insert “by yourself” into that sentence.  If you want to say the statement reveals his hostile attitude toward the private sector in general, fine, but make that argument.

An unqualified claim that Mitt Romney wanted to “Let Detroit go bankrupt.”

The words are those of the New York Times, not Mitt Romney.  What Mr. Romney actually said is: “A managed bankruptcy may be the only path to the fundamental restructuring the industry needs. . . .  In a managed bankruptcy, the federal government would propel newly competitive and viable automakers, rather than seal their fate with a bailout check.”  Criticize his plan, but don’t suggest he wanted to shut every factory and put the workers out on the street.

The next time a presidential election rolls around, none of us will be HLS students.  We won’t have professors like Joseph Singer or Benjamin Sachs, who politely hint when we’ve made a flawed argument.  We won’t have a room full of students eager to correct or counter any errant statements.  By then we will have to have developed, by ourselves, an instinct that extends beyond the controlled classroom environment and compels us to research that Moveon.org banner with the too-good-to-be-true quote, to leave statements in context and debate the merits of the ideas they propose, and to refrain from misrepresentations, misquotations and distortions even when they hang like pieces of red meat, ready for political exploitation.

I don’t want to merely criticize the disappointing level of discourse, although such criticism is certainly deserved.  I want to help change that discourse to one where we make sure we’re arguing against the true position of the opponent, instead of what we wish it would be; one where we make worthwhile the three years we spend here learning to analyze, argue and reason in both an effective and intellectually honest manner.  We attend one of the best law schools in the world alongside hundreds of incredibly intelligent and insightful classmates.  The bar should be higher here, and it’s not difficult to raise it.

Darren Gardner is a 2L. 

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.

Don’t Blame Mitt

We live in a world where people often get judged based on results. We celebrate winners and criticize losers.

In the coming months, Mitt Romney will likely face great criticism, especially as the Republican Party engages in “soul-searching” at its “crossroads.” Journalists and commentators will argue that Romney was a flawed candidate who ran a flawed campaign. Everybody will take turns telling stories about why Romney lost: Where did Mitt go wrong? Was it Big Bird? Binders full of women? The 47 percent? His tax returns? Or Clint Eastwood’s empty chair?

Now that the election is over, and with the benefit of hindsight, many people will blame Mitt Romney. Such is the nature of our consequentialist ethic.

But I prefer to offer an alternative perspective.

Remember the candidates running in the Republican primaries? Mitt Romney was probably the most credible candidate that the GOP could have put up. Herman Cain was dogged by scandals. Ron Paul was unelectable. Rick Santorum would have won few states outside the old Confederacy. Newt Gingrich had too much baggage from the 1990s. And then there was Donald Trump.

Romney is an admirable man: wealthy, handsome, and well-liked. He was educated at America’s best schools. He has a beautiful wife and five children. He has had an extraordinarily successful life: Olympic organizer, Bain Capital co-founder, Mormon bishop, Governor of Massachusetts.

The primary voters were right to pick Romney. The fastest horse doesn’t always win, but you should still bet on it.

Although Mitt Romney lost, he still put up a credible fight. He chose a smart, articulate running mate who did a decent job of debating Joe Biden. And notwithstanding the Electoral College landslide, Romney still got 57 million votes, or about 48 percent of the electorate.

The Republicans probably lost for reasons bigger than Mitt Romney’s errors. True, America has suffered from 8 percent unemployment and $4-per-gallon gas. But negative memories of George W. Bush remain strong, and many Americans remain reluctant to give another Republican the keys to the White House.

Just as the American people once gave eight years to Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II, so too have the people decided that Obama should be given a second chance to determine if his governing ideology can deliver long-term results. Although the initial romance of Hope and Change has faded, Uncle Sam wants to give the marriage a second chance.

In science, we accept evolution. So let it be with politics. The excesses of the Nixon Administration begat the Carter era. The failures of the Carter era begat the Reagan Revolution. The Reagan Revolution begat Clintonian centrism. Clintonian centrism begat Bush Republicanism. And Bush Republicanism begat the backlash that led to the Obama era. Each iteration improved on past problems, although introducing new ones. Whatever one thinks about Obama’s policies, America’s current trajectory still serves a function: to help our democracy figure out what approaches work and what doesn’t.

Chris Seck is a 3L. His column runs on Wednesdays

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record. 


An Election Day Primer: What to Watch

I’ve done the hard work of finding out what’s interesting, so you can sit back, relax, and enjoy Election Day.

Presidential Race

What to watch for: Number of write-in votes for “Bronco Bamma”

Why: Because someone inexplicably decided that every news outlet in the known universe needed to cover this.


What to watch for: Number of states Nate Silver predicts incorrectly

Why: Because in 2008 he got 49 of 50, plus the District of Columbia, plus every Senate race.  Can he do better this time?

Hint: This is not a good drinking game.


What to watch for: Whether Obama wins Minnesota, Michigan, or Pennsylvania

Why: Because longtime Obama strategist David Axelrod has agreed to shave his mustache of 40 years if Obama loses any of those states.  Coincidentally (or not?), these are the states Romney is pouring money into these past few days.


Bonus: Where to watch the victory celebrations

If Obama wins: Fox News.  It’ll be like the whole thing never happened.  “Election? What election?”

If Romney wins: MSNBC.  It’ll be worth it just to see how devastating the damage is when Chris Matthews’ head explodes.


Senate Races

Who and Where: Elizabeth Warren (D) vs. Scott Brown (R) in Massachusetts

Why: Everyone’s favorite Contracts professor against World’s Sexiest Man.  What’s not to like?


Who and Where: Claire McCaskill (D) vs. Todd Akin (R) in Missouri

Why: Akin, of “legitimate rape” fame, still has a chance in this one.  A 12 percent chance, according to aforementioned genius Nate Silver, but after those comments a 0.1 percent chance would be surprising.


Who and Where: John Tester (D) vs. Denny Rehberg (R) in Montana.

Why: It’s the closest Senate race this year, meaning that Montana is politically interesting for the first time ever.


House Races

Who and Where: Syed Taj (D) vs. Kerry Bentvolio (R) in Michigan’s 11th District

Why: Bentvolio is favored to win.  This is interesting, because Bentvolio is a reindeer farmer and Santa Claus impersonator whose brother says is “mentally unbalanced” and will “eventually serve time in prison” if elected.


Who and Where: Scott DesJarlais (R) vs. Eric Stewart (D) in Tennessee’s 4th District

Why: Incumbent DesJarlais, a pro-life Republican and former doctor, took a hit recently when it was revealed that over 10 years ago he had an affair with a patient, and worse, tried to persuade her to get an abortion.  Uh oh.


Who and Where: Joe Walsh (R) vs. Tammy Duckworth (D) in Illinois’ 8th District

Why: Tea Party darling Joe Walsh went up against amputee veteran Tammy Duckworth in one of this year’s most negative, and close, races.


Who and Where: Carol Shea-Porter (D) vs. Frank Guinta (R) in New Hampshire’s 1st District

Why: Recent polls have had each candidate up by more than 5 points.  Who’s right?


Ballot Measures

What: Maine Question 1, Maryland Question 6, Minnesota Amendment 1, Washington Referendum 74

Why: Maine, Maryland and Washington are voting on whether to allow same-sex marriage; Minnesota is voting on whether to explicitly deny it.


What: Idaho Propositions 1, 2, and 3

Why: They all do the same thing.


What: Michigan Proposal 6

Why: It requires that any new bridge or tunnel to Canada be subject to general referendum.  It’s been highly advocated by a company that already has a bridge to Canada and stands to lose profits to any new bridge.


What: Oregon Measure 80, Washington Initiative 502

Why: The “stoner states” up in the Northwest corner of the country are trying to legalize Marijuana for public use.


What: Oregon Measure 78

Why: In what is probably the most nerdy ballot measure in the country this year, Oregon wants to amend its constitution so that its government has three “branches,” like the rest of the country, instead of “departments.”


Nathan Reeves is a 1L. His column runs every other Tuesday.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record. 

Billy Graham and the Last Crusade

At 93, the Rev. Billy Graham knows that his winter has come. He has been widowed for five years, having lost his wife of six decades. He has lost much of his vision and hearing. He can barely move his limbs. Over the past decade, his ailments have included bronchitis, hydrocephalus, pneumonia, pelvic fractures, prostate cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. His once-powerful voice now speaks in whispers.

Yet, with his health failing and death on the horizon, why did Billy Graham intervene in the muddy world of politics?

Billy Graham had nothing to gain, because his legacy was already set in stone long before this election. History will remember Billy Graham as registered Democrat who fought apartheid, fought segregation, and stood publicly with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s. Billy Graham had conducted over 400 evangelical crusades in 185 countries and six continents. He has written dozens of bestselling books. He had dined with hundreds of world leaders and enjoyed personal audiences with every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.

Billy Graham could easily have spent his final years coasting on his many achievements, and enjoying a well-deserved break.

But rather than bask in his hard-earned popularity, he chose to risk it all by releasing election ads that implicitly criticized the policies of President Obama, easily the most powerful man on the planet. One of the statements, distributed among thousands of churches, read:

The legacy we leave behind for our children, grandchildren and this great nation is crucial. As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God.

Surely Billy Graham knew that he would be criticized as a reactionary by tens of millions of liberal Democrats, Obama supporters, and left-wing Christians. Surely Billy Graham knew that the backlash might lead to multi-million dollar donor boycotts of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. And surely he knew that in the event of a Democratic victory, he might never shake another president’s hand again.

Billy Graham probably knew that President Obama is favored to win the election. Obama is on track to win young voters, college graduates, and minorities by double-digit margins. And looking at the Electoral College, Obama will probably win D.C. (3), the West Coast states (74), and perhaps the entire Northeast (105). Moreover, Obama is likely to win blue states like New Mexico (5), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Minnesota (10), Wisconsin (10), and Michigan (16). That adds up to a “blue wall” of 247 electoral votes, which means that President Obama would probably get re-elected if he wins either (i) the coin-toss in Florida (29) or (ii) Ohio (18) plus an extra state or two.

Yet, in the winter of his life, the frail pastor from North Carolina has taken a lonely stand against the President of the United States. Win or lose, Billy Graham will not go gently into that good night.

Whatever one might think of his politics, the old man certainly has courage. Despite suffering from an encyclopedia of ailments, Billy Graham will do until his dying breath whatever his faith requires of him.

He’s not just a Crusader. He’s a Lionheart.

Chris Seck is a 3L. His column runs on Wednesdays

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.