It’s a “No-Brainer” To Avoid Calling Things “No-Brainers”

You read something like this (per John Harwood) and wonder how long Ben Carson is going to survive as a presidential candidate:

Dr. Ben Carson, the most unorthodox candidate in the 2016 Republican presidential field, said he doesn’t aspire to be a politician. And he’s not kidding.

He proposes, for example, to replace more than just Obamacare with his plan for health savings accounts. He also wants his plan to replace all health insurance except for catastrophic coverage. He even wants it to replace Medicare—the extraordinarily popular health program for the elderly.

“When people are able to see how much more freedom they will have, and how much more flexibility they will have, and how much more choice they would have,” he explained in our interview, “I think it’s going to be a no-brainer.”

Here’s the thing, Dr. Carson. You can get away with taking “unorthodox” positions if you give yourself some wiggle-room. When it blows up in your face, you can always say you were expressing some ultimate “vision” of what you hope public policy looks like bye and bye, when today’s voters are all dead. You can make it contingent on other things happening, like the pols who say they’ll be ready to kill this special interest subsidy when all special interest subsidies are gone (that’s the dodge GOP politicians love to use in Iowa on ethanol and farm subsidies). You can quickly grandfather from your policy change anybody who might object to it, as Paul Ryan has sought to do with his Medicare premium subsidy proposal, or as George W. Bush did with his Social Security partial privatization plan back in 2005.

There’s a lot you can do to step back and minimize the damage. But what you cannot do is to call your insanely unpopular idea a “no-brainer.” People who don’t agree may naturally think you are calling them brainless–especially if you are a brain surgeon.

I have some practical experience with this. Back in 1997, when Bill Clinton was struggling to get omnibus fast-track trade negotiating authority renewed by Congress, I wrote a memo that got faxed out to the New Democratic world referring to fast-track as a “public-policy no-brainer.” Maybe it was a coincidence, but a few days later Clinton used the same term in a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus. They were reportedly very unhappy at this characterization, and Clinton was ultimately forced to withdraw his legislation.

It’s never a good idea to enter an argument rejecting the need for it–as Ben Carson will soon discover.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.