McConnell's 'Last-Choice Option' Is First Choice for Headlines

Why it became the day's most popular oxymoron

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The cliché It doesn't matter what you read: today's news could not avoid Sen. Mitch McConnell outlining his "last-choice option" for resolving the debt ceiling crisis. First unveiled on Tuesday afternoon, McConnell's plan for getting around the debt ceiling impasse provides a kind of loophole should Democrats and Republicans not come to agreement before the Treasury runs out of money. In his remarks, he said, "One thing that I just had the opportunity to brief my members on is a sort of last choice option. If we’re unable to come together, we think it’s extremely important that the country reassures the markets that default is not an option, and reassure Social Security recipients and families of military members that default is not an option." From that sentence three words stuck, even if they are an oxymoron. Anyone who's down to just one choice is out of options.

Who's on board?   A better question: Who isn't? Nearly everyone covering the proposal prominently quoted the phrase (but not the sentence in which it was spoken.) "With debt-reduction talks between the White House and GOP leaders stalled," writes The Washington Post in its story's second paragraph, "McConnell (R-Ky.) said his proposal offers a 'last-choice option.'"  "From the White House and Congress to financial centers, pessimism spread on Tuesday about the prospects of a debt-limit deal between President Obama and Republicans," reads The New York Times lead, "prompting the Senate Republican leader to propose a 'last-choice option' that piqued the administration’s interest but angered conservatives in his own party."

Who started this?  McConnell also termed his idea a "back-up plan" so why didn't that (much cleaner) phrase make headlines? A Google search will show that the senator is not the first to let his "options" and his "choices" commingle. People often use "last-choice options" to describe all things unsavory, from unpopular dorms to high-interest student loans to state assistance programs. In Cracking the Hidden Job Market: How to Find Opportunity in Any Economy Donald Asher writes, "Your call to action will be to push for a meeting, if possible and practicable, or a phone call if not, or as a last-choice option, an exchange of information by email if nothing more can be arranged." "Use Newark [Airport] as a last-choice option, as it is located in New Jersey, is much farther away and therefore car/taxi service is much more expensive," write Lizz and Jacob on their wedding page. (We hope the big day went off without a hitch!)

But there's a more prominent proponent of last choice options out there. President George W. Bush was known for declaring "the military option" to be his "last choice" several times throughout his presidency. "The military option is my last choice, not my first. It's my last choice," he said in October 2002 while trying to make the case for an invasion of Iraq. (He repeated it several times in those months leading to war.) Again in March 2003, this time in reference to a nuclear showdown with North Korea, he said "If they don't work diplomatically, they'll have to work militarily. And military option is our last choice."

Why did it catch on? Bush's mixing of choices and options is actually more elegantly phrased than McConnell's snippet, but perhaps it was somewhere on the fellow-Republican's mind while he made his remarks Tuesday. No doubt the media seized on a phrase that carries so much desperation because the idea of making "last choices" raises the stakes of the debt ceiling debate and fast-forwards them to a time when lawmakers really will be scraping the barrel for patchwork solutions that will stave off the threat of default.

Why else? Perhaps somewhere in its subconscious the media, too, associates "last-choice options" with use of force debates during the Bush era. By seizing on the somewhat martial tone of the senator, they uncovered an even subtler way of raising the stakes of the debt ceiling debate: allowing it to take on the tone of a wartime crisis.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.