April 11, 2007 | Scripps Howard News Service

Shut Up, They Explained

I enjoy a good debate as much as the next guy but, increasingly, the next guy doesn’t want to argue — he wants to demonize me. He doesn’t want to win the debate; he wants to shut it down.

Whether the topic is global warming or Saddam Hussein’s links to terrorists, daring to contradict the “consensus” brings hoots and hollers and worse. My most recent experience with such intolerance of diversity of opinion may be instructive. 

It began with a very brief item — exactly six sentences — I wrote on the Corner, a blog hosted by National Review Online. I questioned a talking point that was being asserted by many on the left: that in the last election the voters sent a clear message: “Get out of Iraq!” I asked: “Is there a shred of evidence for that?” I expected both the Corner’s bloggers and readers to offer data both to support and contradict that claim.

Glenn Greenwald, at the online magazine Salon, went on the attack — but what he had to say was oddly non-responsive to my question. To establish that the voters’ message in November had been “Get out of Iraq!” would require showing that candidates, particularly in competitive races, had pledged to support what Greenwald calls a “Congressionally compelled withdrawal of troops from Iraq by a date certain.”

One also might look at exit polls for a clue as to what was on voters’ minds. Were they thinking about Iraq or the Mark Foley, Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham scandals? Did Katrina play a role? And of those voters for whom Iraq was the key issue, how many were protesting mismanagement of the war in general and how many were signaling a specific policy preference?

Greenwald tackled none of these issues. Instead, he presented a selection of recent polls — polls having nothing to do with what had motivated voters last year. And he ignored a number of polls offering contradictory evidence. For example, a February IBD/TIPP poll showing 66 percent of respondents believing it “important” that the U.S. succeed in Iraq — including 53 percent of Democrats.

Nevertheless, on this basis, Greenwald instructed his readers to demand I correct my “false claims.” How does a question become a claim? Greenwald jumped that hurdle by insisting my question was “rhetorical” — that it was really an assertion and a bald-faced lie.

My inbox was soon filled with emails castigating me in vulgar terms. Few had read what I had actually written. And most hadn’t read Greenwald’s column carefully. I asked a Mr. Vincent M. Muller, what exactly was the “false statement” to which he was so furiously objecting? He responded: “Almost every public utterance you have ever made requires correction.”

Despite all this, I remained curious about what Americans thought and think on this issue. So I turned to Jay Cost, a political scientist who specializes in polling methodology and interpretations. I’ve followed his analyses for years and I’ve found him both reliable and insightful.

He said that in 2006 there were too many races featuring too many issues – local as well as national — to conclude that the voters’ were sending any single message. Cost added that, in recent days, Americans have been displaying conflicting attitudes about Iraq. Were it otherwise, a Republican candidate such as Rudy Giuliani (who doesn’t favor a compelled withdrawal) could not be running ahead of Hillary Clinton (who does).

Another example: The latest Gallup poll finds 60 percent of respondents favoring “a time-table for withdrawing all troops from Iraq no later than the fall of 2008.” But that same poll also finds 61 percent opposed to “denying the funding needed to send any additional U.S. troops to Iraq.” Since setting a time-table for withdrawal obviously implies denying funds for additional troops, one can make definitive statements about what most Americans think only by cherry-picking the numbers.

Meanwhile, a poll taken late last month by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm, finds a statistical tie between those “more concerned that the Republicans will wait too long to withdraw our troops from Iraq” and those “more concerned that the Democrats will leave Iraq too quickly.”

The conclusion to which this leads: Most Americans are not yet sure whether U.S. troops should leave Iraq sooner or later, on a strict timetable or in response to changing conditions, whether American defeat in Iraq is unavoidable or whether the new strategy being implemented by Gen. David Petraeus has a chance to succeed.

In other words, this is a debate Americans should be having. But there are those who don’t want a debate. They just want to tell you what you think — and shut down those who dare to differ.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.