Washington, they say, is Hollywood for ugly people. It’s also debate club for the logically impaired. The past year included its share of fallacies, sophistries, oversimplifications and utter absurdities.
But a few prominent arguments committed the worst offenses against rational thought. Below are the three worst arguments made in Washington in 2013. These weren’t illogical brain freezes or odd beliefs spouted by backbenchers. These arguments were deliberately devised, promulgated and repeated by prominent politicians, which makes them all the more embarrassing.
“If we can save only one life…”
The demagoguery started early in 2013, as Democrats tried to push gun-control laws in the wake of the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The White House argued for gun restrictions using a litany of facile talking points, most absurdly this gem by President Obama: “If there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try.”
Vice President Joe Biden echoed the line: “As the president said, if your actions result in only saving one life, they’re worth taking.” White House spokesman Jay Carney repeated the mantra: “If even one child's life can be saved by the actions we take here in Washington, we must take those actions.”
It sounds nice — in a high school Model Congress sort of way — that we ought to take any action that would save one child’s life. But we all know policies have costs, in terms of freedom, unintended consequences and using up enforcement resources. Obama’s “just one child” argument pretends his gun control proposals have no costs.
Outlawing party balloons would save the handful of kids who choke to death on them. Outlawing swimming pools would save hundreds of children who drown in them every year. A national speed limit of 10 mph would spare untold numbers of Americans who die in automobile accidents. Why didn't Obama push these laws in 2013?
The data suggest that for every life saved by gun control laws, some lives are lost. But Obama wanted Americans to forget about the people unable to defend themselves and think only of the intended consequences of his law.
“Defund it or you’re for it...”
The Tea Party’s central mistake in the government shutdown debate was confusing differences in tactics for differences. Utah Republican Mike Lee put this mistaken view most succinctly on the Senate floor: "Defund it or own it. If you fund it, you’re for it.”
The provision in question would have blocked all federal funding for Obamacare’s implementation. But the “defund Obamacare” strategy never made political and rhetorical sense.
To start with, the defund proposal had near zero chance of passing. Defunding Obamacare required Obama to sign a bill defunding Obamacare. So “defund it or you’re for it” boiled down to: “Join in our doomed posturing, or you’re a big liberal.” That’s not exactly the way to build a coalition within a party.
The line was especially absurd because nearly every single Republican that Ted Cruz and his crew accused of being “for” Obamacare had filibustered the bill and tried to kill it in 2009 and 2010.
Much of the Tea Party distrust of the Republican establishment is earned. That’s why conservative activists roll their eyes when Beltway types say “we share your principles, just not your tactics.” In this case, though, the establishment was right.
“It’s the LAW”
The dumbest argument made during the defund debate, though, was the Democrats' assertion that GOP efforts to delay or change Obamacare were illegitimate because Obamacare “is the law of the land.”
This was an official Democratic talking point, repeated by Democratic politicians and liberal talking heads at every available opportunity.
Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland implied that using the legislative process to change the law somehow violated the oath of office. “We put up our hands to swear to uphold the Constitution and the laws of this country,” Cummings said on CNN. “It is the law.”
The notion that Congress can’t change or delay a standing law is a hard one to dispute, mainly because it’s so mind-bendingly nonsensical. Congress, after all, is the branch empowered to make laws. The president can veto a law, but he then must send the bill back to Congress for revisions — or a vote to override his veto.
Carney, a former journalist, also busted out the “it’s the law of the land” argument – a great irony because he has also spent the past three months defending his boss’s unilateral, and often illegal, changes to the law.
So this is the White House’s view: Congress may not legislate, but the White House can. The Founding Fathers must be turning in their graves.
The good news for fans of logic is that we probably won't hear these arguments in 2014. The bad news? Washington has a bottomless well of bad arguments to tap for years to come.Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.