A Quick False-Equivalence Update

Does 2006-vintage Obama make a hypocrite of the current version, when it comes to the debt ceiling? No.

This morning I mentioned a news story that presented the debt-ceiling showdown as another illustration of no-one's-to-blame partisan gridlock in Washington. Here are samples of the two main kinds of mail that have come in. First, from a reader who is an association official (i.e., lobbyist) in D.C.:

The reason people think you are biased is clear from this example- You write:

“…the 44th president, like his 43 predecessors, believes that the United States should honor its sovereign debt, as part of maintaining the "full faith and credit of the United States."

What kind of journalist doesn’t mention every time the President’s position on this issue is referenced that he opposed the raising of the debt ceiling when he was a Senator?

Here are Obama’s thoughts on the debt limit in 2006, when he voted against increasing the ceiling:

"The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government’s reckless fiscal policies. … Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here. Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better."

In 2007 and in 2008, when the Senate voted to increase the limit by $850 billion and $800 billion respectively, Obama did not bother to vote.

Source: National Review Online

I hope this reader already knows the point I'm about to make, and is cynically spinning the argument, as opposed to his actually not being aware of the political fundamentals. ("What kind of a lobbyist doesn't realize ...?"):

Obama and the other Democrats who voted against debt-ceiling increases under George W. Bush were behaving like the Republicans who voted against increases under Bill Clinton, and like previous "out"-party members when previous presidents have requested increases. That is, they were casting cheap, symbolic No votes to embarrass the incumbent, while not lifting a finger to keep the debt-ceiling increase from actually going through.

Until the Tea Party years, debt-ceiling history amounted to that sought-after thing, a case of "genuine equivalence" in political tactics. Each president has known that he has to take the ugly-sounding step of raising the debt limit. Each president's Congressional opponents have known they have to let the increase go through. But the opponents have also known that the vote is a great opportunity for hand-wringing and pose-striking about the president's failure of leadership.

What's the proof? The 2006 debt-ceiling increase went through the Republican-majority Senate on a 52-48 vote, with Democratic Senators Obama, Biden, Clinton, Kerry, etc., all voting No. These days we're used to thinking that "only" 52 Yes votes means a measure "fails," since the 60-vote filibuster threshold is now applied to everything. Even in those days, the Democrats could have used the filibuster-threat tactic if they had really wanted to stop the measure or penalize Bush. But the 48 Democrats who voted No didn't make the slightest move toward a filibuster. 

Obviously the Obama Administration would leap at a comparable deal these days. The Republicans in Congress could inveigh against Obama's failed leadership all they wanted, and cast their symbolic No votes, as long as enough of them lined up with Democrats to let the increase squeak through. But this year's House GOP is playing a different game.

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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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