The New York Times, Obamacare, And The Problem Of Causation

What caused the Civil War, slavery or the moral (moralistic, if you’re pro-slavery) opposition to it?

I ask because a news article (perhaps I should say a “news” article, for the reasons outlined below) by Jackie Calmes in the New York Times yesterday, “New Worries for Democrats on Health Law” (whose title in its URL is “GOP is readying new offensive over health law”), reveals the same implicit biases and confusion over causation that are at the core of a number of historiographical controversies, especially the causes of the Civil War, that I will return to in a moment.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with concentrating on the politics of the Obamacare debate, as Ms. Calmes does, but if your central point is that “Democrats are worried that major snags will be exploited by Republicans in next year’s midterm elections,” as Ms. Calmes’s is, then you need to be very cautious and careful about assigning responsibility for the political brouhaha to either the snags or the exploitation. Ms. Calmes is neither careful nor cautious, and hence her “news” article reads — as do so many “news” articles in the major media — like a compilation of Democratic talking points.

If, for example, there are very real, serious problems with the law itself, then it would be responsible, even statesmanlike, for the Republicans to point out those problems and irresponsible, or at least highly partisan, to blame them, as Ms. Calmes does, for “preparing to exploit every problem that arises.” The journalistic choice , in short, that what is newsworthy about this debate is Republican opposition rather than the “snags” and “problems” they oppose is more a partisan conclusion than an objective news judgment.

As I have had more than one occasion to discuss here, Ms. Calmes and her editors at the New York Times are, of course, not the first mainstream media journalists to let their partisan biases color their news judgment, leading them to write what purport to be factual statements about causation that are really no more than conclusions base on their partisan preferences, and in what follows I will be in effect reprising and blending together two older posts discussing that confusion, “Causation And Our Partisan Civil War” (28 Feb. 2010) and “The Causes Of Our Partisan Civil War” (2 Sept. 2012).

I was reminded of debates over the Civil War back in 2010 by a column written by the then dean of Washington punditry, David Broder.

Writing about the abortive Blair House “Summit” on health care attend by President Obama and Republican leaders, Broder cited poll results by pollster Bill McInturff showing that voters opposed the Democratic health plan bills being proposed by 52% to 40% and  then noted that Obama

cited other polls showing broad support for provisions in the pending bills that would change insurance rules to tear down barriers for those with pre-existing illnesses and remove the caps on benefit payments.

But armed with McInturff’s evidence that those who have been following the debate most closely and those most likely to vote in November are swinging to the Republican side of the argument — just as they did in 1994 – the GOP legislators at Obama’s summit resisted his efforts to draw them onto common ground. [Emphasis added]

Wait a minute here, I objected. Who’s resisting whom? Did Broder forget that he had just finished saying that it was the Republicans who wanted to focus on “smaller pieces of legislation embodying bipartisan agreement,” and the Democrats who wanted “comprehensive reform”? How, then, did the Republicans all of a sudden become the villains who “resisted [Obama’s] efforts to draw them onto common ground”?

The short answer: by not acting the way Broder preferred.

As any professional (or amateur or former) historian can tell you, causation is a tricky business, often fraught with more moral or political judgment than scientific analysis.

Slavery, for example, is widely thought to be “the” cause of the Civil War, but that view arguably assumes something that shouldn’t be assumed. The desire to protect the institution of slavery was at the core of the decision of the various Southern states to secede, but it was the Northern refusal to allow peaceful secession that precipitated the actual outbreak of hostilities. Slavery may have caused secession, but did secession cause the war, or was the response to secession the cause? These questions cannot be answered by accumulating more facts.

Similarly, the revisionist school of Civil War historians in the mid-20th century frequently blamed the often moralistic abolitionists for making compromise impossible, but there is no objective, scientific way to say their extreme response to evil was the cause of war rather than the extreme evil to which they were responding. To say they were “the” or even “a” cause of war is to say they shouldn’t have acted the way they did, but that is a matter of moral and political judgment, not fact.

By not going along with Obama, in short, the Republicans weren’t acting the way Broder would have had them act, just as the abolitionists didn’t respond to the evil of slavery in the calmer manner preferred by the revisionist historians.

Two months before the 2012 election Dan Balz, also in the Washington Post, fell into the same trap. “Why has President Obama fallen so far short of what he so passionately described as a candidate four years ago?” Balz asked in a long article.

To the partisans on both sides, the answers are simple — and fundamentally at odds.

The president’s advisers contend that Republicans chose the course of obstruction and intransigence from the day Obama was sworn in….

To Republicans, it is the story of a president who arrived in Washington with big majorities in the House and Senate and decided to ram through a series of liberal initiatives with little regard to the ideas or sensibilities of the other party.

On its surface (and an expansive surface it is), I commented, Balz’s article amounts to a very long “he said, she said” traipse through the bitter partisan divides of the Obama presidency up to that date — the stimulus, health care, Simpson-Bowles, the debt ceiling debacle, etc., etc. Reporting each side’s blame of the other at least provides the appearance of fairness and balance, but despite that appearance the article founders on — because it doesn’t even recognize — the fact, long known to historians, that judgments of causation inevitably turn to a large degree on what is assumed as given and what contingent, and even on the judge’s preference for what should have happened. (For a philosopher’s astute discussion of this issue, see William H. Dray, “Some Causal Accounts of the American Civil War,” Daedalus 91 (1962): 578-92.)

I then quoted a perfect example of Balz’s no doubt sincere effort to be fair stumbling over his implicit Democratic bias:

That Obama ran into a wall of opposition from the Republicans on many of those initiatives is indisputable. What is at odds in these varying interpretations is whether anything might have changed that. Republicans say it could have been different. But there is little evidence that, once their leadership decided to oppose Obama, there was much he could have done to win them over — and there are plenty of examples showing how dug in they were.

But wait another minute! Balz could as easily — and more importantly, as accurately — have written that “once Obama decided to offer a highly partisan, left leaning [stimulus, health care bill, whatever] there was little the Republicans could have done save capitulating, which is not compromise, and there are plenty of examples showing how unwilling the president was to accept any  Republican input on his proposals.”

The crucial question here seems to be a question of timing: which came first, the president’s decision to offer a highly partisan program with no bipartisan input or room for compromise or the Republicans’ decision to oppose it? Seems to, but is not, for the fundamental question here is not who did what first but which behavior was a given in the situation and which contingent. There is no way to determine the cause of our partisan civil war, which in effect means deciding who’s mainly to blame for it, apart from one’s view of what should have happened.

For Jackie Calmes and the New York Times, the news worth reporting is Republicans “exploiting” the inevitable problems inherent in introducing a major new social policy. The policy is given; the opposition contingent. A different reporter with different partisan predilections could as easily — and more importantly, as accurately — have emphasized that a highly complex bill passed despite intense and unanimous Republican opposition remains as unpopular today as when it was passed — that this unceasing opposition is the given in the situation — and that Republicans both predictably and quite reasonably believe that when voters, with their help, realize the the costs and flaws of Obamacare it is the legislation itself, not opposition to it, that will be proved contingent.

Reporters are often said to write the first draft of history, but even the good ones quite often don’t write history very well.

Say What? (3)

  1. Marcel Kincaid May 8, 2013 at 1:07 am | | Reply

    Yeah, right. I’m always amused by the lengths that intelligent but intellectually dishonest polemicists will go to. The Republicans of reality are nothing like the sincere, principled fictional characters they would need to be for your argument to go through. They have been quite explicit about their devotion to making Obama fail, and their rejection of approaches that they themselves invented is consistent with that.

    1. Paul137 May 10, 2013 at 1:01 am | | Reply

      I absolutely want Obama to fail. That’s because his policy ideas are terrible ideas, ruinous for the country.

      Generally, it’s hard to know another person’s motives, and it’s probably impossible when the other person is a distant public figure. But I expect many **principled** Republican politicians see things the way I do and come to the same conclusions.

      About this time, many “progressives” (there’s a smug label for you!) will reflexively conclude, “No, that’s just a smoke screen for racism.” Well I don’t claim to be color blind — indeed, I think most people are tribal in their hearts of hearts, and “racism” is just a pejorative word for “tribalism” — but I’d be delighted if Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams or Ward Connerly or Clarence Thomas or Peter Kirsanow were currently president. (Only Connerly and Kirsanow are likely to have the necessary political chops for the job, but as far as understanding the world goes, any of them would be great.)

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