What do you do with dumb debates?

Over the weekend Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell wrote a Washington Post op-ed suggesting that for the good of the country and the Democratic Party, Barack Obama should announce he won't seek re-election in 2012. My first response was that this was the dumbest op-ed I'd read in a decade, but upon further reflection... it's just the second-dumbest (I'd forgotten about this one). Even Barack Obama's harshest critics thought this was a foolhardy idea.

Slate's David Weigel doesn't go that far, merely labeling it "the worst column of the year." That said, he points out that regardless of its stupidity, a lot of people are talking about it. This suggests a serious flaw in the idea ecosystem:

A typical Post column may get a few hundred comments, a few hundred recommendations on Facebook. George Will's bitter I-told-you-so about the Chevy Volt, for example, has inspired around 700 "likes" on Facebook. Caddell and Schoen have inspired almost 5,000 "likes" and almost 2,000 comments (and counting), in what has become the paper's most-read piece of the day. Undoubtedly they've inspired some smaller number of TV producers to book "One and Done" segments, even though no one buys the Schoen/Caddell argument that Obama could achieve more by declaring himself a lame duck....

This is the paradox of the opinion industry: If it sounds stupid, it leads. If it's counterintuitive, it's surely because the columnist has found a fresh angle on a mundane problem, and this angle will produce insights. Data is unexciting, especially if it's the same data everyone else has. Discussions of fantasy scenarios that could prove your theories right? Exciting!

This is just as much of a problem in international politics as domestic politics. If there's a crisis somewhere, inevitably someone will suggest the use of force even if it's wildly inappropriate, and someone else will suggest that the United States just withdraw its influence completely and immediately, even if it's wildly impractical. If it's dumb, it goes on Page One! [Um....op-ed pages are in the back of newspapers, and everyone reads them online now anyway--ed. Hey, you get your fact-based arguments away from my imperfect rhyming scheme!]  I mean, in talking about how stupid Schoen and Caddell's argument is, I'm calling attention to Schoen and Caddell's argument. 

This was less of a problem in the bad old days, when powerful gatekeepers to the opinion industry weeded out the non-mainstream viewpoints. Of course, the best and the brightest of the mainstream had some galactically stupid ideas too. I'm not suggesting we return to that world -- it's neither possible nor desirable.

When it comes to policy debates I'm always on the side of John Stuart Mill -- the best way to deal with stupid arguments is to counter them with better arguments in the public sphere. That said, there's a serious cost to this philosophy in a world in which the stupid ideas can command the policy agenda. The opportunity cost to the inordinate amount of time that is spent swatting away these ideas is that less time is spent debating policies and ideas that have a real chance of being enacted. Furthermore, sometimes the dumbass idea just goes into hibernation among a few die-hard believers until a propitious moment arises for its zombie revival.

In the end, I think Mill still carries the day. Still, every once in a while, it sure would be nice not to have to waste the energy and the attention on stupid policy ideas.

Daniel W. Drezner

The search for the correct presidential analogy continues

In yesterday's Boston Globe, James Verini trotted out the latest historical analogy for Barack Obama, arguing that the president he's really like is George H.W. Bush. If you read the article, however, you'll see that Verini's argument is primarily based on how the events are similar, rather than the men:

In the first year of Bush's term, he was beset by three unforeseen calamities that are eerily resonant. First was the savings & loan crisis…

Then, in the spring of 1989, student-led protestors began assembling in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and in June Chinese police and soldiers took to beating and murdering them. Like Obama, Bush came into office with higher than average respect from foreign leaders, but he had to shelve plans to improve American-Chinese relations, a blow to his larger ambitions to redefine American engagement with the Communist world…

That didn't turn as many people against him as what was, until this year, the worst man-made natural disaster in American history. In March of 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound… Bush, a former oilman, bore only somewhat less blame than Exxon.

Jump to 2009-10: The Troubled Asset Relief Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus, are seen by many Americans as bailouts, not legitimate attempts to stave off economic catastrophe. (TARP was created by the George W. Bush administration, but according to recent polls two-thirds of Americans attribute it to Obama.) Obama, who has arrived in office with the hopes of foreign leaders and populations riding high, wants to redefine relations with, most of all, the Muslim world, but before he has the chance there are protests, and then violent crackdowns, in Tehran. (Unlike the crisis Carter faced in 1979, this was not a revolution, and the Iranian government was in no danger of crumbling.) He is criticized for not expressing enough support for the protestors, criticism that pales in comparison to that of his handling of the BP oil spill.

George H. W. Bush came into office facing what many economists called the worst economic downturn since the Depression, accompanied by a collapse in the real estate market and a Wall Street racked by scandal and stock market decline. He succeeded a president, Ronald Reagan, who staked his reputation on limited government while expanding it in certain costly areas, particularly the military, leaving record deficits…

Twenty years later, Obama followed on the heels of a self-proclaimed Reagan Republican whose tenure ended in straits like those Reagan's had…

I really don't think this holds up terribly well for a number of reasons. I don't know which economists called the 1989 "downturn" the worst since the Great Depression, but I'm sure they were smoking something not looking at all of the data. That downturn wasn't even the worst one of the 1980's -- the 1982 recession was far more severe in its effects. Plus, beginning with the fall of 1989 the Bush administration started reaping unparalleled foreign policy developments -- the collapse of Eastern European communism, the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the cresting of the third wave of democratization, yada, yada, yada.

Still, Verini's essay points to the ways in which humans can't help but search for historical analogies to try to explain the present day. We're hard-wired to look for patterns like this, even if they are exaggerated. Indeed, I've just spent a week of conferencing about the future of the global political economy in which various historical analogies were deployed to explain the current moment. It's possible that I contributed to this analogy-fest just as much as I consumed others.

I'll get to those historical analogies in a later post, but for now, I'll leave it to readers -- which past U.S. president do you think Barack Obama evokes?