Beltway Brain Fever: People Who Agree With Obama But Have to Pretend Otherwise

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US President Barack Obama speaks during a Medal of Honor Ceremony for US Army Private First Class Anthony Kaho’ohanohano and US Army Private First Class Henry Svehla for their actions during the Korean War, during the ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, May 2, 2011. On September 1, 1951, Kaho’ohanohano ordered his troops to withdraw from enemy fire, while he stayed behind to fight the enemy alone, using grenades and ammunition until he ran out, then fighting hand-to-hand until he was killed. On June 12, 1952, Svehla threw himself onto a live grenade, saving his fellow troops. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo: SAUL LOEB

It is obviously possible to agree with the Republican negotiating position over the budget sequester, which is that it would be better to replace the sequester with cuts to social spending, yet better to keep the sequester than increase tax revenue in any form. It is also obviously possible to disagree with President Obama’s position, which is that the sequester ought to be replaced with a “balanced” mix of cuts to retirement programs and increased revenue through tax reform. It is also obviously possible to take a stance directly between the two positions.

Respectable centrist position agrees with Obama’s position. But to agree with one party is not a respectable centrist thing to do. And so a wide stream of coverage and commentary on this issue is dedicated to actively misleading Americans about what the two sides are proposing.

The Washington Post’s editorial today offers a paradigmatic case of this bizarre dynamic in action. Headlined “The blame game over sequestration,” it argues that sequestration would be awful, but “neither party has staked out anything like a serious negotiating position.” The Republicans aren’t serious, the editorial notes, because they have offered to replace the sequester with “Obamacare insurance exchanges, nutrition aid, social service grants and other Democratic favorites” — all cuts that the Post rightly opposes. Oddly, the editorial omits the strongest piece of evidence, namely the GOP promise to oppose any increase in revenue.

But to create the needed symmetry, the editorial likewise takes to task the other side. And so the Post argues that Senate Democrats have an equally irresponsible position:

The Senate Democratic majority has suggested eliminating the sequester by, among other things, cutting farm subsidies, closing certain high-profile tax loopholes and imposing a 30 percent minimum tax on individual income above $1 million per year. This is one big non-starter: Members of both parties want farm subsidies and loophole-closing to pay for other planned reforms, and the millionaire’s tax, though base-pleasing for Democrats, amounts to restoring the just-repealed alternative minimum tax.

Okay, the Democrats have proposed to replace the sequester with two policies named by the Post. One is cutting farm subsidies — a policy for which the Post has been (rightly) crusading for years. The other is a minimum tax on millionaires, called the Buffett Rule, which the Post has likewise endorsed, albeit while emphasizing that such a reform would not alone solve the entire long-term budget deficit. So the Post editorial argues that enacting these sound reforms to replace a damaging sequester is a bad idea because … some people want to use them “to pay for other planned reforms.”

What does this even mean? There are lots of policies that make tons of sense and gain superficial support but don’t happen because they harm some powerful constituency. Why not do them? Why not pay for the other planned reforms some other way? Why are we so sure that these other planned reforms will even happen? What are they?

Again, if you hate the Buffett Rule and love farm subsidies, then by all means denounce the plan! But the Post favors these policies, one of them passionately, yet flicks them away by vaguely invoking some future opportunity to do them again. It’s bizarre.

More bizarre still is the way the editorial addresses Obama’s negotiation position: It doesn’t. When you hear that “neither party” is addressing an issue, you probably think that one of the parties is the president. When this editorial declares that “Mr. Obama and his Republican opponents can’t even agree,” a reader might expect some discussion of Obama’s position, which also makes sense because Obama and the House Republicans are the only relevant parties to the passage of a deal. But the closest the editorial comes is a passage asserting that Obama “seems content to warn of dire cutbacks in everything from naval operations to firefighters and to accuse the GOP of risking them to protect the wealthy.” That is the entirety of the editorial’s treatment of Obama’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the sequester.

In fact, as such places as the Washington Post have reported, Obama is offering to replace the sequester with $600 billion in increased tax revenue plus $900 billion in spending cuts. The Post does not argue that this offer amounts to dangerous, high-tax liberalism. It does not argue that it’s a fair proposal but Obama should go further for the sake of placating Republicans. It doesn’t say Obama’s offer is great but couldn’t pass Congress, or that Obama should instead be making his offer in person, or by handwritten letter, or while gently massaging John Boehner’s bunions. The editorial says nothing at all. It accuses Obama of seeming content to blame Republicans.

These sorts of argumentative gymnastics are required when your dedication to the appearance of nonpartisanship trumps any intellectual integrity or commitment to particular policy goals. The Post set out to blame both sides for the impasse and obviously worked backward through the reasons in order to rationalize this pronouncement. The hash of pseudo-reasoning on display is the necessary outcome of that impossible task.

I know I’m more than a bit obsessed with this particular brand of deceit. But it is not a marginal view. It’s a highly prevalent and influential one. Indeed, other than conscious intellectual dishonesty, the very prevalence of this opinion is the best explanation for its endless repetition. So many people have repeated versions of it — the very best, most thoughtful, nonpartisan people — that it has been imbibed unthinkingly. It’s an analysis so transparently false that it could only be sustained through endless incantation.