Commentary Magazine


No Shortage of Straw Men

Even liberal and mainstream reporters are growing weary of the president’s partisan rhetoric. John Dickerson from Slate complains about the president’s pretense that Republican opponents of his stimulus plan want to “do nothing”:

The attacks are still disingenuous, though. Obama suggests that the bulk of his opponents don’t want to do anything at all. This makes them look absurd. It’s true that some people hold this view. But the bulk of his opponents believe in some stimulus bill, just not the one he proposed. This is a perfectly standard political trick, but it’s hard to pull off if you’re a president promising a new kind of politics.

The Washington Post echoes the same theme:

President Obama likes to portray the battle over the economic stimulus package that passed the Senate on Tuesday as a stark choice between his approach and that of those who would “do nothing.”

“Nothing is not an option. You didn’t send me to Washington to do nothing,” Obama told a gathering of 1,500 here on Tuesday, bringing the crowd to its feet as he campaigned for passage of the more than $800 billion package.

The president used the same language Monday in his first prime-time news conference, suggesting that lawmakers who opposed his prescription want the government to ignore the deepening economic crisis.

“There seems to be a set of folks who — I don’t doubt their sincerity — who just believe that we should do nothing,” he said.

But in truth, few of those involved in the stimulus debate are suggesting that the government should not take action to aid the cratering economy.

Many of the president’s fiercest congressional critics support a stimulus package of similar size but think it should be built around a much higher proportion of tax cuts than new spending. Others have called for a plan that is half the size of the one headed for a House-Senate conference — still massive by historical standards.

Well, the reporters say George W. Bush did the same sort of “my way or the highway” routine. But wait. The new guy was supposed to be better. He ran against the other guy’s effort to “tear down the positions of those phantom opponents as irresponsible, unworkable or downright shameful in comparison to his own.” (Sure, John McCain’s name was on the ballot, but Obama ran against Bush.) Now we hear that dishonest rhetoric is the norm, so we should simply shrug and move on?

In another context, Patrick Moynihan called the downward spiral of societal standards ”defining deviancy down.” I suspect we’re about to find out exactly how far down we can go.