‘The ultimate political ad hominem’

A couple of weeks ago, in a speech that was probably bigger than was appreciated at the time, President Obama delivered a speech in Michigan that presented a new theme to his economic message: there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the nation, its institutions, or even the structure of its underperforming economy. What’s broken is American politics. The economy is a symptom of a larger disease — policymakers are fully capable of addressing this and other problems if our politics weren’t so badly broken.

As the president put it, “There are some in Congress right now who would rather see their opponents lose than see America win — and that has to stop.” Obama liked the line so much, he repeated it a few days later in his weekly address.

This appears to have outraged Charles Krauthammer.

Charging one’s opponents with bad faith is the ultimate political ad hominem. It obviates argument, fact, logic, history. Conservatives resist Obama’s social-democratic, avowedly transformational agenda not just on principle but on empirical grounds, as well — the economic and moral unraveling of Europe’s social-democratic experiment, on display today from Athens to the streets of London.

There’s a quite a bit wrong with this assessment, so let’s unpack it a bit.

First, to compare the White House’s agenda to “Europe’s social-democratic experiment” — or more to the point, comparing the administration to Greece and Britain — is just ridiculous, even for Krauthammer. It’s a lazy, reactionary argument with no basis in reality. If anything, it’s backwards — has Krauthammer even heard of the European austerity agenda?

Second, it’s rather ironic that Krauthammer would complain bitterly about accusations of bad faith in the same column in which he accuses President Obama of acting in bad faith. For that matter, the far-right columnist may not have noticed, but this “ultimate political ad hominem” has been a standard Republican line against this president for years, with nary a complaint from Krauthammer.

But even putting all that aside, I’m hard pressed to imagine how any reasonable observer could question the veracity of the president’s claim. Is it really that hard for Krauthammer to believe that “some” congressional Republicans place a higher priority on undermining Obama than helping the country? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hasn’t exactly been cagey on this point — asked about his party’s agenda, he’s argued, more than once, that his “top priority” isn’t job creation or economic growth, but rather, “denying President Obama a second term in office.” He’s all but conceded Obama’s point, on the record.

Jon Chait added in response to Krauthammer:

[T]he circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Republicans have decided they’d rather defeat Obama than agree to a compromise that might benefit him politically while advancing their agenda. The economic consensus overwhelmingly holds that looser money and fiscal stimulus are the appropriate policy response to the Great Recession. In 2001, when we had a Republican president and a much less dire economic emergency, Republicans demanded looser money and more stimulus. They have undergone an intellectual conversion at a time that makes very little sense given economic circumstances but a great deal of sense given the partisan circumstances.

This is the whole point of the “sabotage” question. Coming on the heels of the debt-ceiling standoff — Republicans have said their own plan included holding the economy “hostage” — it’s impossible to take Krauthammer’s incredulity seriously.