Occupy the Gravy

Slate’s annual guide to your Thanksgiving dinner-table arguments.

Turkey Tussle.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

First, a prayer: May your Thanksgiving gathering be the supercommittee of our dreams, which is to say a happy meeting where everyone gets along despite their ideological differences and divides the pie equitably. We recognize, however, that some families are like the actual supercommittee—and the day may end with one faction pouting to Chris Matthews in the guest room after a political debate. In that case, the better prayer is always Loudon Wainwright’s Thanksgiving one: “If I argue with a loved one, Lord, please make me the winner.” In that spirit, we present Slate’s annual guide to this year’s political arguments, so that you might be lightly armed for small skirmishes.

If your family embarks on an argument not found in the list below, there is one catchall defense against your blowhard uncle. “What proof do you have?” you might ask. Often you will find that towering opinions are based on nothing more than a gut feeling. You can then point out to your uncle that if he wants to make pronouncements on the strong messages he’s receiving from his stomach, the best way to do so is to thank the host.

Who Killed the Supercommittee?

Republicans: The GOP never wanted to budge on taxes, particularly the Bush tax cuts, which were designed to expire a year ago. Just look at the GOP presidential candidates: They wouldn’t even consider a deal that had $10 in spending reductions for every $1 of increased revenue. Republicans offered a “compromise” of $300 billion in revenue increases through loophole closures, but that was a shell game, locking in permanently lower rates for the most well-off  and resulting in a net increase in the deficit. You don’t get points for giving up after-dinner chocolates when you order the brownie fudge sundae. Even if you argue that the long-term problem is spending, the more urgent problem is the growing budget deficit. Everyone has to chip in. Democrats were willing to agree to $500 billion in Medicare savings, which ain’t nothing. You can’t attack the deficit problem with spending cuts alone unless you shred the contract between the government and its people. And as Ezra Klein notes, the party that gave more ground in negotiations was the Democrats.

Democrats: You don’t raise taxes in a recession. The wealthy, whose taxes you want to raise by tinkering with the Bush tax cuts, are the ones who invest. Since most small-business people pay taxes only on their personal returns, the added burden will hurt them most of all. Still, Republicans offered a good-faith compromise, which even Sen. Dick Durbin praised, that would have raised revenue through loophole closures. Democrats wouldn’t take yes for an answer. The entitlement reforms they offered were too small. The president set a trap. He used the committee to get the debt limit increase, then refused to get involved in the committee’s work. He wanted it to fail so that he could blame Republicans in the campaign.

Nonpartisan Deficit Hawk: Don’t apportion blame. Celebrate. The supercommittee failed in its mission of making bad policy. This is no tragedy. Usually politicians succeed in making bad policy. In this case, the $1.2 trillion in cuts are more likely to happen than by any other deficit reduction gimmickry, and the pain is going to come from all parts of the budget. The Bush tax cuts, which were always designed to expire, will do so. Spending restraint has been enforced. The military will be crippled? Don’t bet on it. When it comes to protecting itself, no institution in Washington is more cunning than the Defense Department. In the 13 months before these cuts kick in, it’ll find a way to offset them.

Does Occupy Wall Street Matter?

No: Lootings and assaults? Even Jon Stewart said it was out of control. Newt was right: Take a bath and then get a job. Perhaps the movement might have raised awareness of the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, but the misbehavior of the lesser elements and the lack of a clear message will make Occupy Wall Street a forgotten moment in history. It is not a Tea Party  of the left. Tea Partiers rallied peacefully, politely, and they didn’t cost the taxpayers anything. Their message was simple and clear: less debt, less spending. They changed the shape of a party and the subject of our national conversation. President Obama became obsessed with the deficit and went against his own party in the debt limit deal because of Tea Party pressure. He didn’t do much in reaction to the OWS protesters.

Yes: Since the protests, the number of news accounts talking about income inequality has skyrocketed. The pepper-spraying of an 84-year-old woman created more sympathy for the movement than isolated cases of violence. Besides, it’s not as if Tea Party culture, which allowed racists to feel comfortable slurring the president, is open and welcoming. In the end, the numbers are on our side. The 1 percent might control the lawyers and the media, but the 99 percent understand the movement—because we’re talking about problems they see every day in their own lives.

 Is Obama a Leader?

No (conservative version): New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had it right: “It’s the chief executive’s job to bring people together and to provide leadership in difficult situations. I don’t see that happening.” And it didn’t begin with his failure to push the supercommittee. He ducked the findings of his own deficit commission. He turned his health care plan over to Congress, creating a patchwork mess. In the 2008 campaign, he said he would change the tone in Washington, but except for a few bipartisan cocktail parties, he never really took any chances to make rhetoric of 2008 a reality. On foreign policy, just remember one phrase: “Leading from behind.” What does that even mean?

No (liberal version): From the start, Obama caved in negotiations with Republicans. The stimulus was too small. He should have used reconciliation in Congress to pass the public option or to get real energy legislation. When he negotiated the deal to extend the Bush tax cuts, he should have extracted a promise from Republicans not to turn the debt ceiling into a fight. The passionate Obama of the 2008 campaign has disappeared. You never know where this president stands, and when he does stand firm it’s usually temporary.

Yes (administration version): GM is alive and Bin Laden is dead. The “leading from behind” you disparage produced regime change in Libya while limiting U.S. commitment of lives and money. Oh, and Anwar al-Awlaki is dead, too. You can disagree with the direction of Obama’s leadership, but near-universal health care, financial regulation, a second stimulus (extracted during the negotiations to extend the Bush tax cuts), repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq are all significant accomplishments. Liberal critiques of the president ignore the choices he faced and the constraints on his power. Conservative attacks on his leadership are really just disagreements on the issues. 

Who Is Responsible for the Bad Economy?

Obama (conservative version): The president inherited a bad economy and made it worse. The stimulus didn’t work, despite the administration’s predictions that unemployment would now be at 8 percent. The Congressional Budget Office says the debt it created will be a drag on the economy. As the president said, the shovel-ready projects didn’t exist. As Vice President Joe Biden said, the election should be a referendum on the president’s stewardship of the economy. Excessive regulations, growth in government, and uncertainty created by Obama’s health care plan and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law have put business in a crouch. A Gallup poll says small business owners cite government regulations as their most pressing problem.

Obama (liberal version): Obama came into office with a mandate and a crisis. He could have lived up to those FDR magazine covers and pushed for a stimulus big enough to affect the $2 trillion output gap. Instead, he settled for a plan that (as even some of his advisers said at the time) was too small. He has wasted too much time and political capital on commissions and task forces about the deficit, when he should be focusing on No. 1 economic issue of the moment: jobs.

John Kerry and the supercommittee failed to reach a deal. Who’s to blame?

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images

House Republicans: Obama’s policies, passed with no help from the Republicans in Congress, reversed a recession, avoided a Depression, and created 2 million private-sector jobs over 17 months. The Congressional Budget Office just said his stimulus plan created 3.3 million jobs and saved the country from going into a depression. These efforts may have had even more of an impact were it not for the Arab Spring, the tsunami in Japan, and financial instability in Europe. In the wake of these shocks, House Republicans haven’t lifted a finger to support even the infrastructure spending they once did. As for the economy being weighed down by overregulation: Obama’s White House has imposed fewer regulations than his predecessor had at this same point in his tenure.

Will Obama Win Re-Election?

No: The math makes an Obama loss inevitable. No president since World War II has won re-election with unemployment at greater than 8 percent. It’s at 9 percent now and no one thinks it will be drastically lower a year from now. Presidents in the modern era who have an approval rating under 50 percent lose. Obama’s approval rating is 44 percent. Short of curing cancer or fighting off the Romulans, there is nothing he can do to move his numbers up fast enough. Some 73 percent of the country thinks America is on the wrong track, while only 20 percent see it as headed in the right direction. That’s as high as it has been during Obama’s tenure. Obama’s team wants to make this election a choice between two visions of government. But re-election campaigns are referendums on the president’s performance. The independents who helped elect the president in 2008 have soured on him. They now disapprove of his performance in office by a 2-to-1 ratio. In the 12 battleground states that will determine the election, the unemployment rate is higher than the national average. In these battleground states Republicans are also twice as enthusiastic as Democrats. All Republicans have to do is nominate someone who is not considered scary and Barack Obama is a one-term president.

Yes: The election will be a choice because Obama will have so much campaign cash he’ll be able to make it one. The Republican brand is unpopular, and its candidates are flawed. The president benefits, as Ron Brownstein argues, from demographic changes that increase the number of young, minority, and college-educated voters. As for the polls, even in this terrible economy the president is still pretty much even with the best Republican challenger. Once he knows his opponent and is able to draw distinctions, he’ll take the lead. And if the opponent is Mitt Romney, who does better than any other Republican candidate in head-to-head polls against Obama, then Obama can argue that his challenger has no core. And one of Republicans’ favorite issues against Obama, his health care law, will be blunted with Romney as the nominee: The former Massachusetts governor may not want to admit it, but Romney’s plan served as a model for Obama’s.

Will Romney Be the Republican Nominee?

Yes: Republicans want to beat Obama. Romney consistently polls as the candidate who has the best shot. He has the cleanest message and resume for addressing the economy, the issue voters care most about. He has been almost flawless in the debates and voters can see him as a commander in chief. Republicans have been reluctant to embrace him, but that always happens as voters look for the perfect candidate. Once they realize that every candidate has flaws, they settle on the one who can actually be president, not the one who makes the most entertaining talk show host or bomb thrower. Conservatives will  split the non-Romney vote in Iowa, he’ll win New Hampshire and then put the race to bed in Florida.

No: Romney has been running for six years and Republican voters just won’t eat the dog food. He’s only tied in Iowa, and while he leads in New Hampshire, it’s literally his back yard (he has a house there). Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, tied with him in Iowa, leads in South Carolina and he has the momentum in the race. Romney does well when voters are asked who is the most electable, but Republicans aren’t voting on that alone. With a vulnerable president Republicans don’t have to “settle.” According to a recent CBS News poll, 58 percent said they believe it’s more important to have a nominee who agrees with them on the issues than one who can beat Obama. That’s what 2010 proved to conservatives: They can win on ideology. They don’t have to pick the most electable candidate.

Is America Headed Down the Tubes?

Yes: America has fallen and it can’t get up. The Great Recession isn’t just a dip: The U.S. economy has changed for good. The rise of China and India means millions of new workers are competing with American workers, threatening the middle class that created the social bonds of previous generations. Our reliance on borrowed money and foreign sources of energy limits our freedom. We have fallen from first to ninth place in the proportion of young people with college degrees. When it comes to high school graduation rates, we’re ranked 18th out of 24 industrialized nations. In global competitiveness, the United States has been in decline for the last three years, dropping from first to fifth. We have had crisis moments in the past, but we rose to the challenge. Our current political system, however, is incapable of addressing any problems, easy or hard. It’s not just the supercommittee’s failure to come up with a plan to reduce the debt. Even on issues where there was once agreement, such as the need to fund things such as roads, dams and bridges, there is now just gridlock.

Pass the wine.

No: You’re not going to get an argument from me about political crisis. Our government is a dysfunctional mess. At the same time, these moments of unprecedented peril are a part of our national character. As James Fallows argues, America is always in decline, and is always about to bounce back. Has the last decade been any worse than the 1960s and early 1970s, which saw political assassinations, an oil crisis, inflation, an unpopular war, and the resignation of a president? In its most recent report in 2010, the National Science Board still ranked the United States as the world leader in science and technological development. America now accounts for a third of the world’s research-and-development spending. The average American worker is 10 to 11 times more productive than the average Chinese worker. Despite our problems, we still attract the world’s talent to our universities and our culture.