The "Playing Chicken" Meme--NOT About Obama

bumped - Matt

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.

Tags: Iraq, Iraq supplemental, memes, playing chicken (all tags)

Comments

27 Comments

Another option?

How about change the metaphor?

"This isn't a game of chicken. This is the story of King Solomon and the baby. Bush pretends the care about the troops, and he's counting on the fact that the Democrats really do care--that they're the baby's true parents--and will never allow him to cut the baby in half. That's the game he's playing.

But it's not a game, etc., etc. ..."

by BingoL 2007-04-01 06:09PM | 0 recs
Excellent!

Developing alternative metaphors is always a powerful way to go. And that's a very good one.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-04-01 06:20PM | 0 recs
Re: Another option?

Oh, great, this got bumped after I wrote a garbled half-assed reply.

My point is that people love and understand metaphors, and refusing to give them one in opposition to an offensive metaphor (or meme) allows the default narrative to continue. (Plus, I like the idea of using a Bible story to frame Democratic points.)

My explanation was clunky, but I think there's something here about the King Solomon story of the two women both claiming the same baby. Solomon says, 'cut the baby in half, then, and give part to each woman.' And the woman who screams 'No! Give the baby to her!' he knows is the real mother. Because she's rather give up her baby then see it killed.

So: What's right about the 'playing chicken' meme is that one side is stubborn, juvenile, ego-driven and--yes--sees all this as a game of dominance. But the other side, the side that everyone's saying is gonna lose, or cry uncle, or whatever, isn't playing that game..

The other side is vulnerable not for a lack of balls, but for a presence of care. Like the mother of the baby, the other side--the Democrats--aren't willing to see people killed to score points, to 'win' a game.

And if we could figure a way to communicate that as pithily as 'playing chicken,' I'd be a happy man.

by BingoL 2007-04-01 06:21PM | 0 recs
No Bad

As I explained in another reply, I am doing some reframing, though not with a different metaphor.  Regardless of success or failure, you're to be applauded for thinking this way.

I'm not sure how we can readily effect the replacement you suggest.  But the idea of doing so, and your instinct about a direction to go are valuable in and of themselves.

Not every idea pans out--even good ones.  But that just means we ought to generate more of them.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-04-01 06:46PM | 0 recs
Re: Another option?

How about this, a bit more succinct but same basic principle:

Bush is holding the troops hostage in Iraq for his own political wellbeing.

Simple and to the point.

by Zephyrus 2007-04-01 09:17PM | 0 recs
Yup! That's Good.

And the Democratic Congress is set on bringing them back alive and well.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-04-01 10:18PM | 0 recs
Re: Another option?

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/con tent/article/2007/04/01/AR2007040100766. html?hpid=topnews

Monday, April 2, 2007

Excerpts

Even as their confrontation with President Bush over Iraq escalates, emboldened congressional Democrats are challenging the White House on a range of issues -- such as unionization of airport security workers and the loosening of presidential secrecy orders -- with even more dramatic showdowns coming soon.

Democratic lawmakers expect to open new fronts against the president when they return from their spring recess, including politically risky efforts to quickly close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; reinstate legal rights for terrorism suspects; and rein in what Democrats see as unwarranted encroachments on privacy and civil liberties allowed by the USA Patriot Act.


by dearreader 2007-04-02 12:16AM | 0 recs
Re: The "Playing Chicken" Meme

This, I can agree with. That's definitely a Republican frame, and it's not one that works well for us.

by Dave Sund 2007-04-01 06:10PM | 0 recs
Isn't that what Obama said?

that's it's Bush who's playing the game of chicken?  When you read the context of the statement, it's clear that Obama's saying that Congress doesn't want to get into a game of chicken with the President.  The obvious correlary is that Bush wants to play a game of chicken.  This is in line with Pelosi's frame from last week..."calm down, Mr. President".

Make Bush look like the guy who's unreasonable.

by rashomon 2007-04-01 06:15PM | 0 recs
Re: Isn't that what Obama said?

Obama said if Bush vetoes then the Democrats will have to send a bill without withdrawal to him because "nobody wants to play chicken with our troops."  That implies that if the Democrats send another bill with withdrawal to the president, they are then "playing chicken."

How is that difficult to understand?

by Vox Populi 2007-04-01 06:31PM | 0 recs
Re: Isn't that what Obama said?

I think his quote was pretty well taken out of context. It's clear that he's talking about the President playing chicken. I don't necessarily like the phrase, but I think folks are being a little too hard on him here.

by Dave Sund 2007-04-01 06:33PM | 0 recs
Re: Isn't that what Obama said?

But that's not clear to me.  He didn't say the President is playing chicken with the troops.  He said Democrats would have to compromise or else this game exists.  If Democrats don't comply, then there is a game of chicken.

by Vox Populi 2007-04-01 06:39PM | 0 recs
Close, But Not So Much

There is a problem with this, and it's implicit in the title of Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant.  Even my suggested response can be criticized for reinforcing the "playing chicken" meme, because I've repeated it.

However, in my defense, I've taken that frame and buried it in a larger one--it's a children's game, and Democrats are grownups.  So what I've done is reframe the debate and stolen the GOP's beloved framing of themselves as "the grownups."

What Obama has done is nothing like that, which is why it has set off so many alarm bells.  Obama said, "I think that nobody wants to play chicken with our troops on the ground."

While it's possible to construe that as meaning, "We're not playing chicken, nobody wants to do that," there are two problems:

(1) Even under that construal, the "playing chicken" meme is repeated and reinforced.

(2) It could also be construed as "We don't want to play chicken.  It makes us look bad."  Which not only repeats the meme, but makes Democrats look both underhanded and inept.

I hope you can see how different this is from what I am proposing.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-04-01 06:38PM | 0 recs
When can we say Bush lost the war?

Chicken meme stings because, like it or not, it resonates in the current situation. When viewed through the lens of public opinion and how the Democrats and MSM have dealt with Bush's intransigence, it fits like a glove. The Democrats conceded this when they fully appropriated the money with the timetable for withdrawal.

Regrettably, the time is not ripe to force Bush to back down. The Republicans and the media can still pretend they are winning the war. Until Democrats are able to say Bush lost the war, the meme will stick and he will win the debate.

No one I know of is saying Bush lost the war. When they do (or can) the debate will change. Obama probably said "chicken" because in the public mind this is true. Why didn't he say Bush lost the war and is holding our troops hostage? It would have been much more helpful.

by anothergreenbus 2007-04-02 05:28AM | 0 recs
You're Just Regurgitating the Versailles Consensus

(Even while you think you're attacking.)

Which is not even very coherent:

Chicken meme stings because, like it or not, it resonates in the current situation. When viewed through the lens of public opinion and how the Democrats and MSM have dealt with Bush's intransigence, it fits like a glove.
What the heck does this second sentence mean?  When viewed through the lens of public opinion, the Congress remains unrepresentative of the American people, in large part because of the Blue Dogs.  The M$M has cheered on Bush's instransigence.  The Democrats have to deal with internal divisions and the M$M even before they deal with Bush.  How is all this complexity captured in the simplicity of the chicken meme?

The Democrats conceded this when they fully appropriated the money with the timetable for withdrawal.
The Democrats conceded that the Blue Dogs are idiots.  Nothing more. It was never about Bush.

Regrettably, the time is not ripe to force Bush to back down. The Republicans and the media can still pretend they are winning the war. Until Democrats are able to say Bush lost the war, the meme will stick and he will win the debate.
You've got it backwards.  For quite some time now, 55-60% of the public has favored withdrawal, a solid majority.  But this is considerably more than those  saying we've lost the war.  CNN 3/133:
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Less than half of Americans think the United States can win the war in Iraq, according to a CNN poll released Tuesday.

Forty-six percent said the United States could not win the war in Iraq.

And although 46 percent also said the United States still could win, the results mark the first time since the war began four years ago that a majority of Americans said the United States is not capable of winning.

Incoherent as this passage may be, one thing is clear: CNN has never had as many saying the war is lost as it has had saying that we should withdraw.  The reason is simple--as with Vietnam and Korea before it, there are some who think we can win, but that it is simply not worth the price it would take.

No one I know of is saying Bush lost the war. When they do (or can) the debate will change. Obama probably said "chicken" because in the public mind this is true. Why didn't he say Bush lost the war and is holding our troops hostage? It would have been much more helpful.
It's much more sensible to take a position that a solid majority already accepts--that it was a mistake to go to war in the first place, and that Bush mislead us into the war.  I agree wholeheartedly with the underlying point I think you are trying to make--that the Democrats should attack Bush relentlessly for singlehandedly sacrificing thousands of Americans and continuing to hold the troops in Iraq hostage to his own political interests.  But we should not mirror the GOP's habit of depending on our own desires, rather than reality.

Yes, the Democrats need more fortitude.  But they don't need breast-beating.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-04-02 08:28AM | 0 recs
Re: The "Playing Chicken" Meme

Not only is it a Republican meme, but it's simply fucking stupid to say.  Something a fifth-grader would say in a schoolyard.  Not worthy of someone who is even in politics to say, much less running for president.  

It's like people gave Obama $21 million to pacify him like a baby is given a pacifier.  So he has some marbles to play with in a playground.  Why this man is taken seriously is beyond me.

And, yes, my post is a wee-bit insulting, but, frankly, Obama's holier-than-thou lecturing of me (as a Democrat) is insulting.  

by jgarcia 2007-04-01 06:35PM | 0 recs
Re: The "Playing Chicken"

I think the Edwards Camp is try to make a big deal out of nothing.  The Democrats have made a statement and Obama is correct because you can't negotiate at this point with the troops in harms way.  I believe that we will have the troops home by 2008 because the Republicans will cut and run from the President before labor day.  Nancy and Harry Scored a great victory in March.  Fund the war and keep pecking away the end is near.  It can't come soon enough bu the end is near for the War and the Bush Presidency.

by jproctor 2007-04-01 06:40PM | 0 recs
Re: The "Playing Chicken"

How is the Edwards campaign making a big deal out of nothing?  I haven't seen a release from the campaign on this issue.  

I do see a lot of uncommitted and soft-Obama Democrats questioning this, not specifically Edwards supporters.

by Vox Populi 2007-04-01 06:45PM | 0 recs
Re: The "Playing Chicken"

yes, and the fact that Nancy and Harry put in ALL that work,  repeat:  ALL that work, and then all the progress is thrown down the drain when anyone (not just Obama) repeats and perpetuates RNC talking point propaganda.  

The fact that people on our side screw up good work of our leaders should be infuriating to anyone but the extremist Obamamaniacs.

by jgarcia 2007-04-01 06:58PM | 0 recs
I Specifically Said This Was NOT About Obama

But some folks just insist on not listening.

And since you bring it up:

(A) I'm not part of the Edwards Camp.  I'm leaning his way, but not committed to anyone.  I still think it's too early.

(B) The specific objection raised here is primarily about how Obama repeatedly amplifies GOP frames, rather than challenging them.  This is not the first time.  It's part of a persistent pattern.

(C) But even beyond the issue of framing, the underlying assumption is simply false.  It's just not true that "you can't negotiate at this point with the troops in harms way."

In fact, the claim is--at best--close to being utterly nonsensical.

After all, if you cut off the funding, the troops have to come home, and they're not in harm's way anymore.

The counter-claim here is that if we cut off funding the troops will be left out there without needed supplies.  But that would clearly only happen if Bush decided to screw the troops, just so he could blame the Democrats.

Would Bush do such a thing?  Clearly, he would.  But the way to stop him is to say this over and over and over again, so that even he sees no possibility of gaining anything by doing it.

It seems quite evident, however, that Obama has either failed to grasp this elementary fact.  Or else he's just afraid to say it in public.

Either way, it's not a sign of good leadership on his part.

I keep hoping that these sorts of moves on his part are due to bad advice, and that he'll get rid of whoever's giving it to him.  The longer it continues, however, the harder it is for me to see myself supporting him.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-04-01 07:05PM | 0 recs
It's Gettin Old ( Bias Has Long BEEN Exposed )

I am so embarrased that we are actually still discussing this dead horse. We look so petty. We talked about this ALL AFTERNOON. This is the Fourth ( Don't Even Try....) The FOURTH POST about this mess .It's over. Tell ya what.

Let's have a debate about the sincerety of John Edwards apology for getting us into this mess to begin with. Let's have four or five threads asking if he only apologized because he is running for President. Let's talk about that.

Anyone have a link to that old Op-Ed so we can dissect every cotton pickin word of it? I don't know. I just don't know if he's really sorry for voting for that War.I'm ...."puzzled"

ROFLMAO

by ObamaEdwards2008 2007-04-01 07:40PM | 0 recs
You're The One Getting Old

This diary is NOT about Obama.  It's about the "Paying Chicken" meme itself--just like it says in the title.  I only mention Obama to say it's not about him.  You obviously have not read the diary.

Mindless, knee-jerk Obama supporters such as yourself actually turn people off to Obama, rather than make him a more attractive candidate.

Do yourself a favor.  Try actually reading the diary.  I don't ask that you agree with me.  Just offer an intelligent discussion of what I acutally wrote about.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-04-01 07:49PM | 0 recs
Re: Okay you're right

I confess, no I didn't read it.....it was long and I'm tired from reading all that other crap all afternoon. So you have to have some compassion for me all things considered? lol

It's unfortunate that it took this long for an intellegent post to come out of this whole thing. I apologize because you are right and I have a habit of admitting when I'm wrong about something,

but I will still like to see a full on -three post- all day discussion about that apology.

;p

Thank you for pointing that out though seriously. You were right to do so. I'm calling it a night.

(YAWN)

by ObamaEdwards2008 2007-04-01 08:05PM | 0 recs
Apology Accepted

But next time, at least read my title!

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-04-01 10:15PM | 0 recs
Hmm..

Paul you're saying here that this isn't like a game of chicken fundamentally because there will be no head on collision if both congress and bush don't give in.

But isn't it true, that if the funding bill doesn't pass, there will be a sort of spectacle?

You said that there would be, a do-over. But isn't it possible that there could be enough do-overs so that the troops in Iraq don't get funded and we have a sort of shutdown?

by heyAnita 2007-04-02 04:20AM | 0 recs
I'm Not Sure What Your Point Is...

Paul you're saying here that this isn't like a game of chicken fundamentally because there will be no head on collision if both congress and bush don't give in.
That's one of several reasons.

But isn't it true, that if the funding bill doesn't pass, there will be a sort of spectacle?
No, not really.  Traditionally, vetoes are quite commonplace.  Bush has used signing statements, and the GOP congressional majority to artificially reduce them to a rarity.  But that doesn't magically make them into the end of the world when they do occur.

You said that there would be, a do-over. But isn't it possible that there could be enough do-overs so that the troops in Iraq don't get funded and we have a sort of shutdown?
Of course.  As long as Congress sticks to its guns, Bush will lose.  But "Congress sticks to its guns" is another metaphor that misleading represents Congress as a single entity.  It's actually a very fractious Democratic majority in the House that we're talking about, along with a Senate in which Republicans can block action any time they want.

None of any of this, however, makes the "chicken" meme more apt.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-04-02 08:35AM | 0 recs
Re: The "Playing Chicken" Meme

Thanks Paul for this thoughtful diary and good responses.

by RandomNonviolence 2007-04-02 06:36PM | 0 recs

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