Have you ever read a newspaper column and wanted to give the writer a piece of your mind? Then hoped the writer would respond to your comments, and the two of you would go back and forth until each of you had your say?

I feel that way all the time. And in my other life as a blogger, I recently had the opportunity to do just that with the vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute. It was a brain-draining, nerve-wracking pleasure.

In case you don’t know the Goldwater Institute, it’s a very conservative, very well-funded Arizona think tank. Like lots of similar foundations and institutes around the country, its goal is to help conservatives win elections and, once they win, pass conservative legislation. In the process, intellectual integrity takes a back seat to political spin.

The best way I can describe the well-educated researchers and writers in these think tanks is to call them political operatives with Ph.D.s — Karl Roves with footnotes, if you will.

My head-to-head confrontation with the Goldwater Institute occurred on Blog for Arizona, where I challenged a few “facts” presented by Dr. Matthew Ladner in a newspaper column. He answered my challenge in the blog’s comments section. Of course, I answered back. By the time the smoke cleared, our online conversation tipped the scales at 15,000 words. (The discussions can be found at http://arizona.typepad.com/blog/2009/02/an-interesting-number.html and http://arizona.typepad.com/blog/2009/02/more-fools-gold-ed-tax-credits-save-us-money.html.)

Arguing with Dr. Ladner is exhausting. It’s always intellectually taxing to go up against an intelligent, informed opponent, but I also had to be on guard against his misuse of facts and sophisticated debating techniques. He was obviously more interested in winning by whatever means necessary than besting me in an honest exchange of ideas.

I like to think I came out on top in the discussion, though there were no clear knockdowns on either side. (I imagine Dr. Ladner sees the outcome differently.) My one advantage was, I did my best to use clear, simple language along with facts I honestly believed supported my ideas. Dr. Ladner, on the other hand, had to defend some statements that stretched truth to the breaking point. That put him at a disadvantage.

One of Ladner’s favorite tactics is to compare apples and oranges. For instance, he maintains that Arizona’s per pupil education spending puts us in the middle of the states, while most national rankings put Arizona’s funding closer to 49th. (Even State Superintendent Tom Horne agrees we’re near the bottom. ) Ladner gets there by adding Arizona expenses not used in national rankings to create a very high figure for our educational spending — that’s the apples — and comparing it to the more accepted figures for other states — that’s the oranges. Bingo! Arizona ends up in the middle.

Another favorite tactic is to stir together an array of figures and ideas into a nearly incomprehensible stew and hope it passes for logic. That’s what he did when he tried to prove that individual tax credit dollars going to students attending private schools save the state money. I read his convoluted argument enough times to realize it went nowhere. I answered with a far simpler explanation showing that the credits really do cost the state money. He didn’t try very hard to defend his argument — it’s tough to defend the indefensible — and the best he could do to counter my explanation was to call it irrelevant.

In the last election, most states repudiated the failed conservative policies of the past eight years. Arizona has yet to see the light, but I predict a change as voters feel the sting of the draconian bills passed by the Republican legislature and signed by the Republican governor. All the spin, talking points and “research” coming out of the Goldwater Institute won’t be enough to prop up their destructive ideology much longer.

David Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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