A Quick False-Equivalence Update

By James Fallows

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.

Now, a representative note from a different point of view:

While it's never stated in these articles, and I'm not sure most reporters are even cognizant of it, but if the Democrats were pulling this crap it would be described differently in the Press.  I even think most reporters would be surprised if the the Democrats did do it, as Democrats by and large don't behave that way.  So the false equivalence becomes "that the Republicans are doing this because we all know that's what Republicans do"... 

As a Chicago Bulls fan, I remember the days of the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys era when their style of play was charitably described as physical.  No blood, no foul.  What drove me crazy was the refs didn't call the game the same for both teams.  Since being "physical" was Detroit's style of play, the refs let them get away with more than the other team.  Watching a Chicago-Detroit game was like watching a game using two sets of rules...

I want President Obama to flatly declare that he will veto any appropriations bill, including a continuing resolution, if there isn't an increase in the debt limit already in place.  This only makes sense.  Why sign an appropriations bill when the method of funding isn't secure?  If this causes the Republicans to force a shutdown of the government then so be it.  Let's call their bluff.  I'm tired, as I'm sure most people are, of the threat of shutdown.  Of course this would need the support of Congressional Democrats but I think the threat of shutdown gives the Republicans more leverage then they should have.

And one more:

if you don't name the specific paper, reporter and quoted bank muckety-muck, then all you are doing is preaching to your very own choir.  If you link to it and call them out by name then there is at least a chance that [other] folks might see it (through the magic of google and hyperlinks).

Yes, it's widespread.  But it will only change reporter by reporter, citizen (and bank exec) by citizen.

I'll think about this. Anyone who wants to know where that article came from can easily figure it out. (I don't know the author and have no relationship, good or bad, with the news organization.) I thought the illustration was more useful in de-personalized form, representing a general tendency. Thanks for these notes. Very soon, on to completely different topics. 


For an authoritative history of debt-ceiling votes, see this Congressional Research Service report. For why it is insane even to have these votes, see this from Moody's or this from Slate. For the nuttiness of the "Hey, Obama did it too!" claim, see this from New York magazine. And if you would like a bracing reminder that many parts of the GOP base agree with my lobbyist-reader, see this new finding from the Pew Research Center, in a poll of registered Republican voters. Emphasis added:

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/07/a-quick-false-equivalence-update/278245/