The truth about the false choice

Columnist March 31, 2011

It’s time to retire the false choice.

As a rhetorical device, particularly as a political rhetorical device, the false choice has outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any. The phrase has become a trite substitute for serious thinking. It serves too often to obscure rather than to explain.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

President Obama has employed the false-choice device in assessing financial reform, environmental regulation, defense contracting, civil liberties, crime policy, health care, the deployment of troops in Iraq, Native Americans, the space program and, most recently, the situation in Libya.

On his South American trip, he pulled off a false-choice trifecta, citing “the old stale debates between state-run economies and unbridled capitalism; between the abuses of right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing insurgents; between those who believe that the United States causes all the region’s problems and those who believe that the United States ignores all the problems.” All three, Obama said, “are false choices, and they don’t reflect today’s realities.”

The false-choice dodge takes three overlapping forms. The first, a particular Obama specialty, is the false false choice. Set up two unacceptable extremes that no one is seriously advocating and position yourself as the champion of the reasonable middle ground between these unidentified straw men.

Thus, Obama on health care, stretching back to the presidential campaign: “I reject the tired old debate that says we have to choose between two extremes: government-run health care with higher taxes — or insurance companies without rules denying people coverage,” he said in 2008. “That’s a false choice.” It’s also a choice that no one — certainly no other politician — was proposing.

Or Obama on financial reform: “We need not choose between a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism and an oppressive government-run economy. That is a false choice that will not serve our people or any people.” Again, please find me the advocate of either extreme.

This blends into the second category of false-choice rhetoric: obscuring the difficulty of divining the correct answer to a complicated problem. Like the president, I am ideologically and temperamentally inclined to middle-ground, pragmatic solutions. But the frame of the false choice does little to clarify the correct choice. Obama’s Libya speech offers a classic example.

“In fact, much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice when it comes to Libya,” the president said on Monday night. “On the one hand, some question why America should intervene at all — even in limited ways — in this distant land.” Meanwhile, he noted, others “have suggested that we broaden our military mission beyond the task of protecting the Libyan people and do whatever it takes to bring down [Libyan leader Moammar] Gaddafi and usher in a new government.”

This isn’t a false choice — it’s a hard one. There are reasonable concerns about the implications of U.S. intervention and legitimate questions about the match between mission means and ends. To scoff at these as presenting a false choice does a disservice to the seriousness of those who do not come down precisely where the president proposes.

The first presidential false-choicer I have found was Richard Nixon, who used the phrase appropriately in a 1969 commencement address: “Let us not, then, pose a false choice between meeting our responsibilities abroad and meeting the needs of our people at home. We shall meet both or we shall meet neither.”

The phrase, though, has been the particular province of Democratic presidents, with Bill Clinton the undisputed champion. The recent Republican usage has tended to involve a third version: false choice as wishful thinking. George W. Bush maddeningly pooh-poohed the “false choice” between tax cuts and deficit reduction, pretending not only that both could be accomplished simultaneously but that the former would produce the latter.

“They said that we had to choose between cutting the deficit and keeping taxes low,” Bush boasted in 2006. “Those are false choices.” Well, we know how this argument turned out. The decision to spend down an illusory surplus with unaffordable tax cuts was a real choice — with painful consequences that the country is still reaping.

And so, readers, you should indeed beware of false choices. When an elected official uses the phrase, prepare to be snookered.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com

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