President Obama embraces the ‘false equivalency’ argument

On Friday, President Obama embraced a concept long cherished by his party: false equivalency.


"I've offered negotiations around that kind of balanced approach," Obama said in response to a question about whether he bares some level of blame for the failure to reach a deal on sequestration. "And so far we've gotten rebuffed because what Speaker Boehner and the Republicans have said is, we cannot do any revenue; we can't do a dime's worth of revenue. So what more do you think I should do?"

The notion forwarded by President Obama more broadly during the press conference was that the idea that both sides had picked up their ball(s) and gone home was simply wrong, and that he had been willing to put some skin in the game while Republicans had not. "This is not a situation where I'm only asking for concessions from Republicans and asking nothing from Democrats," Obama said. "I'm saying that everybody's going to have to do something."

(Republicans, for what it's worth insist that Obama got the tax increases he wanted in the fiscal cliff deal and now is the time to address spending; "taxes have been decided," Texas Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry said on MSNBC Friday.)

Rejecting the "both sides do it" construct will delight Obama's base who has been insisting for weeks (months, really) that the media's tendency toward playing "fair" has led to a gross mischaracterization of the facts surrounding sequester. (The Washington Post's Greg Sargent has been a leading voice in the "false equivalency" chorus.)

And there is some evidence in polling that Republicans are in position to take more of the blame for sequestration than President Obama will. In a Washington Post-Pew poll conducted at the end of last month, 45 percent of respondents said Republicans in Congress would be more to blame for the automatic cuts kicking in at midnight tonight while 32 percent said Obama should be blamed more. A Pew-USA Today poll showed similar results; 49 percent blamed Congressional Republicans while 31 percent put the blame on the president.

Of course, false equivalency does lie, to an extent, in the eye of the beholder. (Yes, we are aware that noting that false equivalency is a matter of perspective can and will be labeled by the left as -- you guessed it! -- false equivalency.) And, the tone Obama struck -- challenging and confident -- is sure to irk everyone from House Speaker John Boehner to the likes of Rep. Raul Labrador (Idaho) and other tea party aligned Members.

By embracing the concept of false equivalence -- that one side was fighting fair and the other wasn't -- Obama offered a fist rather than an olive branch to Republicans. It seems that President Obama and his senior aides have concluded that no matter what approach they take to dealing with GOP leaders, it won't change the final outcome of these seemingly unending budget battles -- and that the only way to get things done is to ramp up public pressure on the GOP.

The reality is this: Republicans are holding the harder line when it comes to sacrificing their sacred cows in the sequestration fight.  Insisting that new revenue is entirely off the table because they gave in on a previous budget deal makes compromise extremely difficult.

Republicans -- or at least their party strategists -- understand that the position they are currently holding on the sequester is one likely to hurt them with the general public but, and this is the important part, help solidify them with their base. Even if, in the final analysis, Republicans are seen as less willing to meet halfway on a deal, they can go to the base of their party and make clear that they held the line on a foundational principle.  Without support from the base, the GOP can't stand -- much less grow.

For a party still trying to pick itself up off the electoral mat, that may be the best outcome Republicans can hope for from the sequestration fight.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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