One of President Obama's favorite rhetorical tricks is to insist that his opponents cannot just say no. If they dislike his proposal regarding X, he often says, then they have an obligation to submit their own.
"Tell me how we get to yes," the president said the other day in Idaho. "It is perfectly fair for them to say 'we have a better way to meet these national priorities.' But if they do, they have to show what those ideas are."
This makes the president sound as though he is perfectly willing to compromise, and would work hand-in-hand with Republicans if only they would quit acting like such dogs in the manger. It's a neat trick — but that's all. And when he uses it, Obama is about as sincere as a televangelist.
For one thing, the rhetorical device implies that Obama and Congress share the same priorities. When he couches them in sufficiently general terms — e.g., "helping the middle class" — that might be true. But government doesn't work at such a sweeping level of generality. And as soon as you get any more specific, priorities begin to diverge.
Obama would like to help the middle class receive more government benefits. Congressional Republicans would like to help the middle class keep more of its hard-earned money. Washington can't do both.
Second, exhorting Republicans to propose their own ideas implies, misleadingly, that Obama might actually go along with them. Doubtful.
"I want to hear specifically from them how they intend to help kids pay for college," Obama said in Idaho. OK — suppose Republicans propose that, rather than further inflate college costs with yet more tuition subsidies, Washington drive down college prices by (1) slashing student aid, (2) mandating that colleges charge tuition by the credit hour, and (3) canceling any programs that cannot pay for themselves on that basis. Would Obama go along with such a market-oriented approach, or would he just say no?
The president certainly didn't mind delivering a flat no to the GOP about a bill restricting abortion. Before Republicans spiked it for their own reasons, Obama threatened to veto the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would have banned elective abortions after five months of pregnancy. Almost two-thirds of the public, including 59 percent of women, support such a measure. Yet the White House says the administration "strongly opposes" it, because it would "unacceptably restrict women's health and reproductive rights." Women, the White House says, "should be able to make their own choices about their bodies and their health care."
But if the president doesn't like the Republicans' plans to restrict abortion, then by his own reasoning he "should put forward some alternative proposals." The White House claims the administration will keep trying to "minimize the need for abortion," but that's different. How, specifically, does Obama propose to stop those abortions some pregnant women consider necessary?
He doesn't. Nor should he. Since he does not share the objective, he need not suggest alternative ways to achieve it.
The president also felt no obligation to propose alternative ways to move oil from Canadian tar sands when he threatened to veto a bill authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline — because he thinks oil from Canadian tar sands should be left in the ground. Does that make him an obstructionist naysayer, or a principled defender of the environment? And are those two mutually exclusive?
Sometimes the president and Congress do agree on the objective despite disagreeing over tactics. Nobody in Washington wants Iran to build a nuclear arsenal, for instance. To prevent that from happening, Republicans want to impose new sanctions. The White House threatens to veto any such measure because the president prefers the diplomatic approach. The two sides differ over the means, but not the ends.
Yet often political disagreements concern both means and ends. E.g., most people who object to a giant fence on the Mexican border don't do so because they have a better idea for how to keep foreigners out. They do so because they want to let foreigners in. Those who object to higher inheritance taxes don't think there's a better way to "spread the wealth around," as Obama once put it — they think government shouldn't do that in the first place.
Everyone can agree if you're willing to get vague enough: We all want things to be better rather than worse. The trouble starts because people have very different ideas about what, in practice, those terms mean.
A. Barton Hinkle