About Those False False Choices

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Ruth Marcus is right that Obama relies far too much on the rhetorical device of the "false choice". He's made it a cliché. Obama's speciality, she says, 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.

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.

She helpfully identifies two other varieties: the false choice that is not in fact a false choice but a real choice that is difficult (for instance, what to do in Libya); and, a Republican favorite, the false choice that is mere wishful thinking (as in, we do not have to choose between tax cuts and deficit reduction, because we can have both).

An excellent piece, I thought--even though I'm compelled to say it started unpromisingly. Her first sentence--"It's time to retire the false choice"--ran afoul of Mike Kinsley's important stricture on another rhetorical device:

There just isn't time for all the things it's time for.

"It's time to put sentiment aside," announced New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof one day last month. And who can disagree? Kristof's particular sermon was not about 9/11 or about invading Iraq but about whales, and his view may not be widely shared. (Go ahead and kill a few, he feels.) But on the larger point Kristof speaks for all of us in the business of manufacturing opinions. On all subjects, it is time to put sentiment aside.

You may be thinking that it would have been nice to be alerted back when opinion-makers thought it was OK to wallow in sentiment, so that you could enjoy this opportunity before the time came to put sentiment aside. But there was no such opportunity. Sentiment belongs in a special category, along with partisan differences, of things that exist primarily to be put aside.

Of course one could argue that the false choice device was permissible until Obama started overusing and misusing it. Sometimes it really is time. And this might be one such time. On the other hand, I see that Marcus is a serial it's-timer. Just a fortnight ago it was time to face budgetary reality--a clear-cut violation of the Kinsley rule, since when was it ever time to ignore budgetary reality? (Then again, that particular "it's time" was in the headline, and it's time people realised that columnists cannot be held responsible for their headlines.)

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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