Jonathan Chait

Introducing: Today In Wrong


I sometimes feel that I spend too much time pointing out all the ways in which various people are wrong, and even then, the vast quantity of wrongness in the public discourse overwhelms my capacity to process it. In that spirit, I'm launching an occasional feature called "Today In Wrong." In it, I'm sweeping up some of the wrongnesses that don't quite merit an individual post. I'm starting with two of the most consistent and reliable sources of wrongness.

1. Today's Wall Street Journal editorial page purports to rebut liberal arguments about the stimulus. Liberals argue that the stimulus was too small and that Republicans blocked more aggressive action. The Journal offers two rebuttals:

Even Paul Krugman, who now denies intellectual paternity for this economy, wrote on November 14, 2008 that "My own back-of-the-envelope calculations say that the package should be huge, on the order of $600 billion." The White House raised him by 33% two months later, but now we're told that wasn't enough.

In fact, as Krugman points out, he was calling for $600 billion per year, not total, which would be much larger than the $787 billion over two years (much of which consisted of non-stimulative spending at the behest of Senate moderates.) Also, the economic outlook darkened dramatically between November and the time the stimulus passed.

The Journal also pooh-poohs the idea that GOP obstruction limited the size of the stimulus:

As for blaming the Republicans, with only 40 and then 41 Senators they couldn't stop so much as a swinging door.

Of course, at the time of its passage, Democrats had just 58 Senate votes and needed two Republicans to do anything. It's simply a fact that Republican moderates forced the stimulus to be lower than the Democrats wanted.

2. Former Bush Minister of Propaganda Pete Wehner purports to rebut my argument about health care and the Democrats' popularity. My argument, in a nutshell, is that it's debatable whether declining to reform health care would have helped Democrats, since the public wanted reform, and failing to carry out a clear campaign commitment would have entailed major costs of its own. The further notion, popular among Republicans, that Democrats should have abandoned heath care reform after spending a year on it and passing similar bills through both chambers is absurd. One element of my argument is that health care is just about the only issue where Republicans don't have an advantage over Democrats, which helps undergird the point that the public still doesn't support the do-nothing position, and that the do-nothing option thus would have also carried significant political costs for Obama.

Wehner replies by pointing out that Democrats once had a huge lead on health care and saw their large lead dwindle:

There is no other issue, in fact, over which Democrats have lost as much ground as quickly as over health care. What was once the strongest issue in the Democratic arsenal an issue on which Democrats enjoyed public support for generations has now turned politically neutral with respect to the support each party enjoys on it.

I don't see what his point has to do with anything. My whole point is that you have to gauge it against the counter-factual. Wouldn't Democrats also have lost their health care advantage if, after winning a solid majority running on a platform promising health care reform and universal coverage, they decided not to reform health care? Wehner notes that Democrats are running away from the Affordable Care Act. That is generally true, though the Affordable Care Act is the most prominent Obama administration initiative, and it's unsurprising that vulnerable members would run away from the administration during an economic collapse. Moreover, Republicans are still running away from the right-wing plan to repeal the ACA, full stop. Even the GOP leadership won't come out and endorse that idea.

In sum, the idea that there was some cost-free alternative way for Obama to handle health care seems pretty fanciful. What's even more fanciful is the method of arguing for an alternative entirely by pointing out flaws with the status quo, declining to consider the potential flaws of the alternative course of action. But of course this line of thinking, or lack thereof, is entirely consistent with the Wehner Fallacy.

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