False Equivalence: The Ur-Text

I hope that the on-line conversation this afternoon, between David Brooks of the NYT and Ezra Klein of the WaPo, is captured and stored in a time-capsule somewhere. People can look at it years from now as an unusually crystalline exposition of different media perspectives on politics and policy during the Obama era. 


BrooksKlein.pngWhat I've been calling the "false equivalence" outlook is one whose starting point on most issues is: "Enough of the posturing and blame game from both sides. Until we reach the true ideal of a New Centrist Party to bring us together, we have to rely on the President to put out sensible centrist plans. And if there's no agreement, our starting-point assumption is that he hasn't been forthcomingly reasonable enough."

The other outlook, which for lack of a better term just now I'll call "journalistic realism," instead says: "Yes, of course, over the years both sides have gone through 'righter' and 'wronger' phases; democracies finally move forward by compromise; and presidents have more power and therefore more responsibility for finding consensus than anyone else. But just at the moment one side is saying 2+2=4, and the other is saying 2+2=5, and the '4' people are right."

I'll let you match contender and perspective yourself. Here's a sample:
Brooks: In my ideal world, the Obama administration would do something Clintonesque: They'd govern from the center; they'd have a budget policy that looked a lot more like what Robert Rubin would describe, and if the Republicans rejected that, moderates like me would say that's awful, the White House really did come out with a centrist plan.

Klein: But I've read Robert Rubin's tax plan. He wants $1.8 trillion in new revenues. The White House, these days, is down to $1.2 trillion. I'm with Rubin on this one, but given our two political parties, the White House's offer seems more centrist. And you see this a lot. People say the White House should do something centrist like Simpson-Bowles, even though their plan has less in tax hikes and less in defense cuts. So it often seems like a no-win for them.

I know, like, and respect both of the discussants, and I think each of them has done us a service with this exchange -- Klein in having the initiative to propose the discussion and Brooks in having the menschy-ness to agree. It is worth close examination. I look forward to further reflections by both writers in their columns and (seriously) thank them for this start.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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