The "Playing Chicken" Meme--NOT About Obama
by Paul Rosenberg, Sun Apr 01, 2007 at 06:05:54 PM EDT
With three straight front-page posts about Obama's fumbled response, there's no need for another diary about that. But what about the underlying meme itself?
The idea that Congress and the President are playing chicken may sound natural and logical at first, but it quickly falls apart if you actually think about it. A game of chicken is profoundly irrational, a symptom of immature manhood. It is a symmetrical, mutually-agreed up game in which both sides are bluffing--both themselves and their opponents--betting that they can make the other fold first, and risking something of great value (their cars at the very least, and quite possibly their lives) to do so. They either will or will not meet at a common point in space and time. Whoever bails out first, loses, unless neither one bails, in which case winning or losing are pretty much irrelevant.
None of this is true of current situation (aside from Bush's immature manhood), as I'll show just below the fold. The fact that such an inappropriate metaphor holds such power is highly significant, however--as I'll also discuss, along with suggestions about how to challenge it, and score major points in doing so.
A Failed Metaphor
First, let's look at how the metaphor fails. There is certainly a great deal that's irrational and symptomatic of immature manhood about Bush's conduct, as there has been throughout his presidency, and indeed his entire life. Indeed, this almost certainly part of the reason that the "game of chicken" metaphor came into play in the first place: it's just the sort of meme that would suggest strength and resolve to Bush's adolescent mentality, maybe even give him a little testosterone rush every time he hears it. Those who swallow his act no doubt feel much the same.
None of this is true of the Democratic Congress, however. They are dead serious. They are both trying to fullfill the wishes of the American people, and follow the advice of experts in every relevant field--military experts, diplomatic experts, geopolitical experts, the Iraq Study Group, you name it.
There is nothing irrational about what they are doing.
Second, it is obviously not a symmetrical game in any sense. Congress and the President have different powers, and they do not go at the same time.
Third, it is not mutually agreed upon. It was Bush's choice to ignore the Iraq Study Group, which was trying to provide him a graceful way to back down, change directions, and still rhetorically argue that he was pursuing the same long-term goal. Instead, Bush not only chose to continue fighting in Iraq, he framed his stubborn refusal to change in terms of a troop increase--doing the exact opposite of what the bipartisan group of experts advised. It was also his choice to ask for a massive supplemental (although the Congress could surely have passed a smaller one). In short, Bush chose this confrontation. It was not mutually agreed upon. He forced it on Congress.
Fourth, it is not necessarily a bluff on either side. In chicken, both sides are necessarily bluffing in complex ways. The fundamental premise--that the game proves something about manhood--is itself a bluff, born out of insecurity and ignorance of what true manhood is all about. If one plays chicken and "wins" one bluffs oneself into believing that one is a man. In reality, if one is truly committing to crashing, unless the other person turns away, one is simply a suicidal fool, who is incapable of facing life, and finds death an easier out, without the shield of faux heroism.
At a psychological level, it seems a fairly safe bet that all this remains true of Bush. Yet, as a description of the political process, it is wholly inappropriate. Politically, it is not about Bush's psychology, but about his retaining perceived (and hence quite real) political power, getting what he wants on his own terms, and preventing Congress from asserting its Constitutional power of the purse. For Congress is it about doing what they were elected to do, and rescruing the country from a reckless, self-destructive course of aciton. Diminshing the president's power is a consequence of this, to be sure, but it is not Congress's primary motivation. This is about assuming real maturity, taking its Constitutionally mandated duties seriously. It is not about bluffing itself into an immature fantasy of manhood. It is nothing like that at all.
While both sides are trying to get something of value, it is not necessarily of great value--given the modest nature of the restrictions placed on the bill, and while both sides may be bluffing, they are not necessarily doing so. Congress could pass it, Bush could veto it, and they would be back to the beginning, nothing valuable destroyed whatsoever. A far cry from a fatal car crash, which is, after all, the grim possibility that a game of chicken revolves around. Indeed, the only dying conceivably going on is being done by soldiers in Iraq, and others killed in the war.
Fifth, they will not meet at a common point in space and time. Both sides do not go at once. Congress goes first, then the President. The President is not there standing in the way when Congress votes on a bill. Congress is not there standing in the way when the President either signs or vetoes the bill.
Sixth, it is not necessarily true that whoever bails out first, loses. In fact, only Congress can bail out first. The President can bail out second--but even in doing so, he can claim that the final bill is acceptable to him, because of the final round of changes. Or, of course, he can sign one of his notorious signing statements. And, as already noted, if he vetoes the bill, the result isn't a headon collision. It's a do-over.
The Press Buys In
Now, metahpors are invariably inexact, but this is ridiculous. There is clearly a need to explain the use of this metaphor despite the bad fit.
The most obvious reason one might adopt such a metaphor in this situation is because that's how one sees virtually any disagreement that doesn't quickly go away. As already mentioned, this seems quite plausible as a description of how Bush sees the world. One can point to a whole series of situations in which Bush or his proxies have responded this way. Virtually every former Bush Administration official who has criticized the Administration has been subject to withering personal attacks--or presumable threats of same. Ron Suskind treated us to an early example with the disappointed resignation of John DiIulio, and his incoherent, transparently false retraction of his criticism. Suskind was also involved with covering Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who was openly retaliated against. General Eric Shinseki was forced into early retirement. Richard Clarke was ferociously demonized. Joe Wilson was not only smeared, his wife's CIA cover was blown--after which he was even blamed for it!
This long record tells us something--not only does Bush deal with substantantive criticism by retaliating with personal attacks, the Washington press corps eats it up. They not only regard it as entirely normal--they hunger for it. It's sexy. It's exciting. It gives them something to talk about with raised voices. It reduces the need to have to pronounce foreign names. Facts become even more irrelevant than usual--if that is possible.
Of course, such personal attacks are not games of chicken. The White House and its political allies are like a thousand ton locomotive. Their critics are like a kid on a bike. But for Bush, the imaginary fighter pilot, they will do just fine. And the press corps has willingly gone along with them.
The press goes along in large part because this reflects their own desires, worldview and practices. As James Fallows explained in his 1996 book, Breaking the News, reporting on political controversy is much easier than reporting on the underlying issues, facts, historical context, and development of public policy. In their world, facts are merely something you spin to make a point--unless you simply make stuff up.
In short, the "game of chicken" metaphor appeals directly to the juvenile attitude of Versailles punditocracy, which can't be bothered with the hard work of actual news reporting--not to mention the companies they work for, which are not about to pay for it.
What To Do
So, how should Democrats respond to all this?
Simple: "This is not a game."
Expanded: "This is not a game. Talk about a 'game of chicken' in this situation trivializes the most important, somber duties of government we are ever required to face. Each day we fail to end the war in Iraq, and bring our troops home means more casualties. More brave young Americans killed or seriously wounded for life. More Iraqis killed, wounded or turned against us for a mission that has never been clearly defined or explained to the American people. This is dead serious. This is not a reckless teenager's game of chicken. This is a matter for serious grownups. And that's what Democrats in the Congress are--serious growunps dealing with the most serious of governmental responsibilities, because the Republicans have been playing games too long."
All sorts of other variations are possible. Mix in talk about what the American people have said they want. Talk about what experts have said. The Powell Doctrine. The Iraq Study Group. General Shinseki's warning about the need for hundreds of thousands of troops. Admiral Zinni's list of higher priorities. Just make sure to hammer the point home--this is not a game of chicken. This is serious stuff. It's grown up stuff. And the Democrats will deal with it, because they are grownups.
That's it! As promised, no Obama. Because it's not about what one candidate does or does not do. It's about all of us really digging down deep, getting way beneath the surface, and blasting away with the truth they're trying so desperately to bury.