Political False Dichotomies

When New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, announced recently that he had undergone lap-band stomach surgery earlier this year to help him lose weight, the world of political punditry immediately got on the case.

The decision by the Garden State’s chief executive to slim himself down, many analysts concluded, could mean only one thing:  He is seriously considering a run for president in 2016.

After all, these news sleuths reasoned, what possible explanation could there be for a 50-year-old morbidly obese married man with four young children to embark upon a concerted effort to improve his health, other than to make himself more physically appealing to Iowa Caucus-goers three years hence?

Christie, of course, swiftly batted away any and all suggestions that his earnest new weight loss regimen is calibrated to coincide with the political calendar (apart from presidential prospects, he is up for re-election as governor this November).

“It’s so much more important than [politics],” said Christie.  “I’ve struggled with this issue for 20 years […] this is about turning 50 and looking at my children and wanting to be there for them.”

As the debate about Christie’s true intentions continues to brew and we figure out, once and for all, whether his new diet is a health-based tactic or a politics-based tactic, allow me to pose a revolutionary, utterly counterintuitive hypothesis.

It is both.  Christie genuinely wants to get himself in better physical shape, but he is also aware—how could he not be?—that doing so will almost surely elevate his chances for future political success.

In a sane media environment, this simple observation would be so blindingly obvious that it would hardly be worth making in the first place.  Unfortunately, the media environment we’re actually stuck with operates under a strict code of dichotomy:  If A is true, then B must be false.  Even when A and B are in no way mutually exclusive, as in the Christie case above, the notion that two separate things can be true simultaneously is just too much for our political discourse system to handle.

So when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was called to testify recently about the Obama administration’s actions (or lack thereof) regarding the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya last September, the question on cable news networks was whether the purpose of the hearing was to get to the truth of the matter, or rather to make Clinton look bad in anticipation of her own possible presidential run.

As with Christie, it seemingly did not occur to anyone that the committee’s questions served both purposes at once—that by holding Clinton responsible for a series of deadly mistakes (and possibly a cover-up), Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee can, indeed, render her politically vulnerable.

So long as this is true, and so long as everyone knows this is true (if only subconsciously), it would be nice if the players in these political dramas could meet us halfway and simply admit it.

When Congressman Darrell Issa, chairman of the Benghazi hearings, goes on Meet the Press and says, “Hillary Clinton’s not a target,” who does he think he is kidding?

The reason Issa thinks he needs to say this—indeed, the reason our false dichotomy system persists—is his fear that an acknowledgment of a political dimension to the hearings would make him look petty and not truly interested in the deeper questions of what went wrong in Libya.

I don’t see why this should be true.  If Clinton’s State Department really was negligent in protecting its people at the consulate in Benghazi, and there was evidence suggesting as much, then Issa’s ulterior motives would be irrelevant.  The facts would speak for themselves.

Further, if the worst speculation about the Benghazi affair were true, Clinton’s public standing would jolly well deserve to take a hit.

In other words, we should not mistake those with political motives as axiomatically acting in bad faith, even as we recognize that such partisanship can often blind one to facts that are directly in front of one’s nose.  (For some, Benghazi may well be such a case.)

While we’re at it, we should further recognize that sometimes a good policy decision is also a good political decision, and that those making them are allowed to notice this without being made to feel shady or corrupt.

And finally, that on some (if not all) occasions when a fat man of advancing years decides to shed a few pounds, a team of analysts is not required in order to ascertain why.

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