Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Ruth Marcus's false "false false choice" charge

Purporting merely to debunk an irritating and misleading rhetorical device, Ruth Marcus has struck at the heart of Obamaism. Her target is Obama's fondness for what she calls a "false false choice':
The false-choice dodge takes three overlapping forms. The first, a particular Obama specialty, is the false false choice. Set up two unacceptable extremes that no one is seriously advocating and position yourself as the champion of the reasonable middle ground between these unidentified straw men.

I will argue further down that most of the Obama false choice tropes Marcus takes on are valid.  But first I want to spotlight the seriousness of the charge.  The false choice trope is not merely a tool of rhetorical combat. Setting things up this way reflects a core tendency in Obama's personality and approach to problem-solving.

Garry Wills called this approach, unflatteringly if not inaccurately, "ominidirectional placation."  Faced with a policy question that is ideologically polarized, Obama aims to "admit that the other side sometimes has a point," spotlight the opposition's "good ideas," incorporate them into his proposed solution, and so mollify the opposition. Failing that, he aims to convince the public that he has moved to incorporate whatever's legitimate in the opposition's point of view. In the healthcare debate, this approach culminated in Nancy Pelosi's semi-comic-but-true assertion that the Affordable Care Act was a bipartisan bill with no bipartisan support -- a kind of crystallization of Obama's more extended argument to that effect.  In the leadership health care summit that Obama staged as prelude to forcing a vote on the bill, he stressed its bipartisan pedigree repeatedly in his peroration:
Now, I guess what I'm saying is I've put forward, then, very substantial ideas that are embraced by Republicans....

When it comes to the exchange, that is a market-based approach. It's not a government-run approach...

We have a concept of an exchange, which, previously has been an idea that was embraced by Republicans, before I embraced it, and somehow, suddenly, it became less of a good idea...

In fact, most small businesses through this program get huge subsidies by becoming members of the exchange. That's where the money's going. The money's not going to some big welfare program.  The money is going to give tax credits to small businesses, tax credits to those who are self-employed to buy into this pool. And that's not a radical proposition. It's consistent with the idea of a market-based approach.

And finally, with respect to bending the cost curve, we actually have a lot of agreement here. This is an area where if I sat down with Tom Coburn, I suspect we could agree on 95 percent of the things that have to be done, because the things you talked about in terms of -- and I wrote some of them down. In terms of reducing medical errors, in terms of incentivizing doctors to coordinate better and work in groups better, in terms of price transparency, improving prevention, those are all things that not only do I embrace, but we've included every single one of those ideas in these bills.

The false choice trope that Marcus flags is the flip side of this stance. It amounts to a claim that opponents have rejected common ground. Obama often seeks to convince his audience that he has heard and incorporated  what's reasonable in Republican thinking -- leaving him, when they reject his proposals, to battle an extremist caricature, and fend off their caricature of his stance. That's how he generally frames the false choice. Back to Marcus:
Thus, Obama on health care, stretching back to the presidential campaign: "I reject the tired old debate that says we have to choose between two extremes: government-run health care with higher taxes - or insurance companies without rules denying people coverage," he said in 2008. "That's a false choice." It's also a choice that no one - certainly no other politician - was proposing.

Or Obama on financial reform: "We need not choose between a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism and an oppressive government-run economy. That is a false choice that will not serve our people or any people." Again, please find me the advocate of either extreme.

Literally, it's true that "no other politician was proposing" either "government-run healthcare" or "an oppressive government-run economy."  But of course, Republicans insisted, ad nauseam, that Obama and the Democrats were ramming just those things down the American people's throats.  So one pole of Marcus' alleged "false false choice" is a Republican misrepresentation of a Democratic policy proposal. The words are theirs. So is the falsity.

As for the opposite pole, in both cases Obama offers a fair representation of the Republican position.  "Insurance companies without rules" fairly characterizes (with just a bit of hyperbole) Republican opposition to the coverage standards governing the insurance exchanges in the PPACA.  It also refers to the GOP position that the way to make insurance affordable is simply to allow its sale across state lines. Because every state has its own insurance regulations, Obama has argued consistently that opening the market without setting universal standards would lead to a "race to the bottom." Hence he asked the Republicans in the health care summit, "is there a way for to us to deal with the interstate purchase of health insurance but in a way that provides, again, some baseline protection." 

In the second pairing,  "a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism"  does not strike me as an unfair characterization of the financial regime that Dodd-Frank was designed, however imperfectly, to correct -- although "chaotic and all-too-forgiving" might be more accurate as far as financial institutions were concerned.  A market in which mortgage brokers are free to push people into more more expensive loans than they can afford, underwriters are free to approve loans with no documentation of income or assets, subprime mortgages are transubstantiated into triple-a securities, and hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of derivatives are swapped with no transparency, can fairly be described as chaotic -- and unforgiving, once the false values it's allowed to tally are exploded.

Marcus moves on to a "second category of false-choice rhetoric: obscuring the difficulty of divining the correct answer to a complicated problem":  
Like the president, I am ideologically and temperamentally inclined to middle-ground, pragmatic solutions. But the frame of the false choice does little to clarify the correct choice. Obama's Libya speech offers a classic example.

"In fact, much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice when it comes to Libya," the president said on Monday night. "On the one hand, some question why America should intervene at all - even in limited ways - in this distant land." Meanwhile, he noted, others "have suggested that we broaden our military mission beyond the task of protecting the Libyan people and do whatever it takes to bring down [Libyan leader Moammar] Gaddafi and usher in a new government."

This isn't a false choice - it's a hard one. There are reasonable concerns about the implications of U.S. intervention and legitimate questions about the match between mission means and ends. To scoff at these as presenting a false choice does a disservice to the seriousness of those who do not come down precisely where the president proposes.
This critique makes no sense to me.  As Marcus acknowledges, in this case there were plenty of people advocating both poles of the "false choice" Obama defined.  And he did in fact come down with a policy somewhere between them.  He explained that perhaps-too-intricate-policy in some detail, particularly its strict limits on American intervention.

The civil war in Libya did indeed pose a "hard choice." Obama made one, and he explained it.  Maybe he made the wrong choice. But why shouldn't he describe the two paths he rejected as "false"? 

From there Marcus moves on to "double false choices" served up by Nixon and George W. Bush. Her critique of Obama ends here. And I see nothing here that strikes home at Obama's mode of decision-making, or thinking about policy, or communicating with the American people.

I would be more interested in a critique that questioned Obama's rejection of the left pole in each of these choices. Will we ever again elect a less apologetic and less tentative Democrat -- one who, given the choices faced by Obama, would have opted for a strong public option (or single payer) in healthcare, radically downsizing banks, and a pullout of Afghanistan?

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