Media Criticism

The Phrase 'Obama must declare war on the Republican Party' Was Analysis, Not Advice, Claims Journalist

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Neil Patrick Harris's best role yet

In January 2009, as Barack Obama was preparing to take over the White House from George W. Bush, Slate columnist John Dickerson wrote a piece on rhetoric, with the subhed "When politicians declare war on something, it's not usually a good sign." The nut:

Politicians are fond of comparing things that aren't war to war. It's both an abuse of language and a rhetorical trick. […]

Obama campaigned against Bush's use of fear as the justifying language of public policy. But he has almost matched his running mate Biden in his use of dire language to describe the severity of the economic stakes.

Well, that was then. Last week, Dickerson, who is also political director of CBS News, had a new piece out, headlined "Go for the Throat! Why if he wants to transform American politics, Obama must declare war on the Republican Party." His argument now:

Analysis

Washington's partisan rancor, the size of the problems facing government, and the limited amount of time before Obama is a lame duck all point to a single conclusion: The president who came into office speaking in lofty terms about bipartisanship and cooperation can only cement his legacy if he destroys the GOP. If he wants to transform American politics, he must go for the throat. […]

Obama's only remaining option is to pulverize. Whether he succeeds in passing legislation or not, given his ambitions, his goal should be to delegitimize his opponents. Through a series of clarifying fights over controversial issues, he can force Republicans to either side with their coalition's most extreme elements or cause a rift in the party that will leave it, at least temporarily, in disarray. 

Obama, Dickerson added, "has no time to waste."

Unsurprisingly, people in the crosshairs of Dickerson's proposed pulverization were not fans of the column. Or, as Daily Download media writer Matt Taylor snarked, "Of course, it didn't take long for aggrieved righties to come out of the woodwork."

Dickerson's response to the criticism was hilarious: "Conservatives despise my analysis of Obama's second-term options. But it was analysis—not advice." Yes, you can always distinguish analysis from advice by the presence of such words as "must" and "should"….

Especially when you're wrong

In my editor's note in the February issue on how the "fact-checking" press gives the president a pass, I discussed how the go-to pose by lefty opinion journalists in the Obama era is to cloak their essentially partisan cheerleading in the holy glow of "facts," "science," and "math." Dickerson deploys all three words in the main section of his non-apology:

I was using a very specific definition of transformational presidencies based on my reading of a theory of political science and the president's own words about transformational presidencies from the 2008 campaign. It was also based on these givens: The president is ambitious, has picked politically controversial goals, has little time to operate before he is dubbed a lame-duck president, and has written off working with Republicans. "Bloodier-minded when it comes to beating Republicans," is how Jodi Kantor put it in the New York Times. Given these facts, there is only one logical conclusion for a president who wants to transform American politics: He must take on Republicans—aggressively. 

For me, this was a math problem with an unmistakable conclusion. Some people thought I was giving the president my personal advice. No. My goal was to make a compelling argument based on the facts.

Dickerson also insisted that he has "close relations" who are conservatives, so obviously he doesn't "hate Republicans." Fascinating, I'm sure.

I've always found the enthusiasm among opinion journalists for helping build a permanent governing majority to be as creepy as it is futile. But different strokes, etc. What interests me here is how the Cloak of Empricisim is beginning to blind wearers to the plain meaning of their own words. That, and I think Dickerson was on to something in his description of Obama's divide-and-conquer strategy. As he put it in the original column, "The president already appears to be headed down this path."

Obama's refusal to countenance spending or entitlement cuts in the fiscal cliff talks deepened divisions between true fiscal conservatives and John Boehner-style pragmatists. His nomination of Republican realist Chuck Hagel for defense secretary deepened divisions between neo-conservatives and GOP non-hawks. You could read his choice of issues to focus on–gun control, gay marriage, immigration–as variations on a theme of bringing the most politically unpalatable corners of the Republican tent to the surface. As the president said in his Second Inaugural (engaging in some at least quasi-Dickersonian rhetoric), "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate."

It's a neat trick, using spectacle to denounce spectacle, denouncing "name-calling" 10 words after calling your political opponents absolutists, and bathing your own bare-knuckle politics in the warm glow of "reasoned debate." The bad news for Obama (and Dickerson), is that these tactics will slowly leak potency over the next 1,400-plus days.