The Intellectual Dishonesty of Obama and Other False Purists

Yes, the GOP is obstinate. We get it. But assigning the White House some blame is no false equivalence.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
May 27, 2014, 5:28 a.m.

To voters angry at Wash­ing­ton, Pres­id­ent Obama has an ex­plan­a­tion for the deep­en­ing of grid­lock, in­com­pet­ence, and zero-sum gain think­ing dur­ing his five-plus years in of­fice: It’s not his fault.

Not that fin­ger-point­ing solves any­thing, but Obama wants you to know that it was Re­pub­lic­ans and the me­dia who put his pres­id­ency on ice. At a fun­draiser in Chica­go on Thursday night, Obama said:

“You’ll hear if you watch the nightly news or you read the news­pa­pers that, well, there’s grid­lock, Con­gress is broken, ap­prov­al rat­ings for Con­gress are ter­rible.  And there’s a tend­ency to say, a plague on both your houses.  But the truth of the mat­ter is that the prob­lem in Con­gress is very spe­cif­ic.  We have a group of folks in the Re­pub­lic­an Party who have taken over who are so ideo­lo­gic­ally ri­gid, who are so com­mit­ted to an eco­nom­ic the­ory that says if folks at the top do very well then every­body else is some­how go­ing to do well; who deny the sci­ence of cli­mate change; who don’t think mak­ing in­vest­ments in early-child­hood edu­ca­tion makes sense; who have re­peatedly blocked rais­ing a min­im­um wage so if you work full-time in this coun­try you’re not liv­ing in poverty; who scoff at the no­tion that we might have a prob­lem with wo­men not get­ting paid for do­ing the same work that men are do­ing.

“They, so far, at least, have re­fused to budge on bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion to fix our im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem, des­pite the fact that every eco­nom­ist who’s looked at it says it’s go­ing to im­prove our eco­nomy, cut our de­fi­cits, help spawn en­tre­pren­eur­ship, and al­le­vi­ate great pain from mil­lions of fam­il­ies all across the coun­try.

“So the prob­lem “¦ is not that the Demo­crats are overly ideo­lo­gic­al — be­cause the truth of the mat­ter is, is that the Demo­crats in Con­gress have con­sist­ently been will­ing to com­prom­ise and reach out to the oth­er side.  There are no rad­ic­al pro­pos­als com­ing out from the left.  When we talk about cli­mate change, we talk about how do we in­centiv­ize through the mar­ket great­er in­vest­ment in clean en­ergy.  When we talk about im­mig­ra­tion re­form there’s no wild-eyed ro­man­ti­cism.  We say we’re go­ing to be tough on the bor­ders, but let’s also make sure that the sys­tem works to al­low fam­il­ies to stay to­geth­er “¦

“When we talk about taxes we don’t say we’re go­ing to have rates in the 70 per­cent or 90 per­cent when it comes to in­come like ex­is­ted here 50, 60 years ago.  We say let’s just make sure that those of us who have been in­cred­ibly blessed by this coun­try are giv­ing back to kids so that they’re get­ting a good start in life, so that they get early child­hood edu­ca­tion.”¦ Health care — we didn’t sud­denly im­pose some wild, crazy sys­tem.  All we said was, let’s make sure every­body has in­sur­ance. And this made the oth­er side go nuts — the simple idea that in the wealth­i­est na­tion on Earth, nobody should go bank­rupt be­cause some­body in their fam­ily gets sick, work­ing with­in a private sys­tem.

“So when you hear a false equi­val­ence that some­how, well, Con­gress is just broken, it’s not true.  What’s broken right now is a Re­pub­lic­an Party that re­peatedly says no to proven, time-tested strategies to grow the eco­nomy, cre­ate more jobs, en­sure fair­ness, open up op­por­tun­ity to all people.”

Obama could be for­giv­en for try­ing to mo­tiv­ate his lib­er­al base with dis­tor­ted and over­heated rhet­or­ic, if it wasn’t clear that he ac­tu­ally means it. 

The truth is that both parties are ideo­lo­gic­ally ri­gid. Un­bend­ing is the nature of a polit­ic­al parties, es­pe­cially when voters them­selves are sort­ing in­to “red” and “blue” teams; when com­puter-as­sisted re­dis­trict­ing and oth­er struc­tur­al factors en­cour­age par­tis­an­ship; and when the me­dia in­dustry is be­ing pushed (and is push­ing voters) to polit­ic­al ex­tremes.

Obama can reas­on­ably ar­gue that the Re­pub­lic­an Party is more ri­gid than the Demo­crat­ic Party. I would agree, and I don’t hes­it­ate to hold the GOP ac­count­able for po­s­i­tions that place the party on the wrong side of his­tory and demo­graph­ic trends.

But it’s my be­lief that Obama has over­stated his obstacles to suc­cess on taxes, im­mig­ra­tion, cli­mate change, and oth­er is­sues. The can­did­ate of un­bridled op­tim­ism in 2008 is now cyn­ic­al, bowed, and nearly beaten — a lead­er whose ex­cuse for fail­ure amounts to, I can’t lead be­cause Re­pub­lic­ans won’t let me. By the way, that is not a con­ser­vat­ive talk­ing point; it’s rooted in dozens of con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had in the past 17 months with Demo­crats.

Greg Sar­gent, a lib­er­al writer for the Wash­ing­ton Post, an­ti­cip­ated my re­sponse in a post Fri­day:

This will prompt the Green Lan­tern­ite pun­dits, who con­tin­ue to trace the prob­lem to Obama’s fail­ure to move Con­gress, to ar­gue that he is merely mak­ing ex­cuses for fail­ure. I would note, though, that in his re­marks, he also said the only rem­edy for the prob­lem is for Demo­crats to vote out Re­pub­lic­ans, which is to say, it’s on Demo­crats to fix by win­ning elec­tions “¦

Sar­gent makes a reas­on­able point. However, Demo­crats had con­trol of both cham­bers of Con­gress when Obama took of­fice in 2009, and most voters wer­en’t happy with the res­ult. Fur­ther­more, Sar­gent’s pre­scrip­tion for a bet­ter state of polit­ics is ex­actly what’s wrong with the sys­tem. “Win­ning elec­tions” is all the mat­ters in Wash­ing­ton. Obama prom­ised bet­ter.

Sar­gent’s col­league Dan Balz quoted Obama at the Chica­go fun­draiser in his Sunday column and reached a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion:

There is truth to the pres­id­ent’s claim that a fac­tion of the Re­pub­lic­an Party has forced House GOP lead­ers to res­ist com­prom­ise and that the party’s con­front­a­tion­al hard-liners have changed the rules on Cap­it­ol Hill.

But there are Re­pub­lic­ans on Cap­it­ol Hill who are not ideo­lo­gic­al hard-liners and who lament what they re­gard as a pres­id­ent and White House seni­or staff who have grown in­creas­ingly with­drawn. They hear what Obama said Thursday and are of­fen­ded. They think he does not try to un­der­stand the reas­ons they dif­fer with his policies, be­liev­ing he simply prefers to por­tray them all as heart­less and cap­tured by the tea party.

Obama chafes at such even-handed ana­lyses. He dis­misses them as “false equi­val­ence” be­cause the pres­id­ent won’t be happy un­til every news story casts him as the hero and Re­pub­lic­ans as the vil­lains.

In polit­ics and in every­day life, rarely are both sides equally wrong, which is why journ­al­ists shouldn’t draw false equi­val­ence. Balz is an ex­ample of how to meas­ure blame fairly, not ne­ces­sar­ily equally.

Rarer still is one side 100 per­cent right, which is why Obama is guilty of false pur­ity. Obama’s in­tel­lec­tu­al dis­hon­esty has pre­ven­ted him from learn­ing on the job, which is what’s re­quired of great pres­id­ents — the kind who over­come obstacles that oth­ers whine about.

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