Slate's guide to your annual Thanksgiving arguments.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 23 2010 11:31 PM

Turkey Tussle

Slate's guide to your annual Thanksgiving arguments.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

First a prayer: May your Thanksgiving be peaceful and loving—free of pat-downs, fowl-ups, and political debate. Seriously, you don't really want to sour another Thanksgiving with a political spat, do you? Let the only use of the phrase "quantitative easing" be related to a third helping, because if you bring it up with Aunt Sue, the tryptophan and the topic will put the table to sleep. Plus, simply being thankful is healthy for you.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Nevertheless, I recognize that some families can't resist an argument. So at least you can plan for it. The enterprising uncle of a friend of mine distributed red-and-blue plastic cups at the start of the meal so everyone could identify each family member's party affiliation before the shouting started. If this sounds familiar, the better prayer for you may be Loudon Wainwright's Thanksgiving one: "If I argue with a loved one, Lord, please make me the winner." In that spirit, here's Slate's guide to this year's political arguments.

TSA pat-downs.

Against them: This is a perfect example of government overreach. I have two terrible options: Submit to a nude picture of myself or get a hand up the fundament. TSA is run by the government, so it's neither safe or effective. And it's never actually caught anyone. The body scanners based on millimeter wave and backscatter X-ray technology find lots of false positives and can see beneath the clothing but they can't see anything in a body cavity—please pass the drumstick?—so they're useless. "Security theater" may make people feel better, but it's moronic to think that searching everyone—kids, pilots, cancer patients with prosthetic breasts—is going to catch terrorists. Plus, I don't need a date

For them: It's a shame vaudeville isn't still around. I'm tempted to just send you to read this great Michael Kinsley essay and go watch the game. This is public policy by Drudge Report, where the government must respond to any manufactured outcry. First, the "outcry" is hardly that. Fewer than one-half of 1 percent of the 34 million passengers who traveled on airplanes in or to the United States last week were subjected to crotch-area pat-downs. Catching people at the airport is the wrong way to think about the TSA. TSA screenings have made it ever harder to sneak things onto planes. That has increased the time and expertise it requires to build bombs. That gives intelligence and law enforcement officers more time to catch the would-be bombers before they catch the Supershuttle for the airport. Unlike the stereotype of the government agency, the TSA has actually been rather receptive to suggestions from outside. Remember when they used to ask you if you packed your own bags? They've backed off the no-liquids-except-in-tiny-containers rule, too. Surely it will tweak things in this case, as it already has by exempting pilots from the screening.

Extending the Bush tax cuts
Extend all of them forever: If Democrats allow taxes to increase, we're going to have our next Thanksgiving at Burger King. The fluttering recovery would plummet into a freefall. You can't just extend the tax rates for "middle income" families as President Obama would like, because that's unfair. Plus, raising the upper rate would unfairly hit small-business owners, and small business accounts for 70 percent of the net new jobs in an economy. Having lower marginal rates means people have more money they can invest, which boosts growth, which shrinks deficits. It's win-win-win!

Don't extend any of them at all: Let's remember why we are in this fix: Republicans couldn't win the tax-cut debate on the merits of the magical no-deficits argument 10 years ago, so they had to use a gimmick to pass the cuts temporarily, assuming that no one would have the guts to let them expire. Let's have the guts and stop these kinds of gimmicks. A balanced budget is important, because deficits lead to higher interest rates, which will kill growth as borrowing becomes more expensive. Ending the Bush tax cuts would bring in $ 3.3 trillion.  As for job creation and economic stimulus, CBO says extending the tax cuts would not give you much bang for the buck. We could spend some of the money saved from letting the tax cuts expire on true job-creating stimulus (which voters say they want more than tax cuts, anyway). Money could better be used on aid for the states, extending unemployment insurance benefits, or creating tax credits that favor job creation.

Meanwhile, I wish that we could stop having this debate and start a real one over tax simplification, with lower rates and fewer loopholes.

Extend them temporarily: Higher taxes would kill consumer spending and probably the recovery. Raising the top rates might not kill the recovery, but that's not a certainty—and it certainly wouldn't help improve things. Plus, it is politically impossible with moderate Democrats voting against only a partial extension. So, let the tax cuts stay, permanently, for everyone making under $250,000 and extend them temporarily for those in the highest bracket. Let's remember that lowering the rates for those making less than $250,000 benefits everyone, including the wealthy. And let's not buy into the small-business myth: Fewer than 2 percent of small businesses pay the higher rate for those making more than $250,000 (or $170,000 for individuals).

Meanwhile, I wish that we could stop having this debate and start a real one over tax simplification, with lower rates and fewer loopholes. To make this happen we should follow Kent Conrad's proposal for tying any extension of the tax cuts to fundamental reform. If reform isn't passed in 18 months, rates start to inch up or revert to the Clinton-era levels. When politicians can't find courage to act, they should write it into law.

Ratifying the START treaty
Senate should ratify: This treaty is not a security risk and would improve relations with Russia which is crucial. Russia is helping us in Afghanistan, and it is helping put pressure on the Iranians to slow their nuclear program. If the treaty breaks down, it weakens Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who has shown that he can work with President Obama, and it strengthens Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who hasn't. (Though it appears he can work with animals). The weapons reductions only ask each side to reduce their stockpiles by a third.The U.S. arsenal will have enough missiles to maintain the deterrent. To ensure they're working, Obama has promised $85 billion to update existing systems. Why would Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft—Republicans all—support this if it were a bad deal? Politics is supposed to stop at the water's edge. Yet Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, the primary person blocking this deal, wants to delay the vote until the next session of Congress, when Republicans will have more votes and thus more leverage over the president.

Senate should not ratify: Why rush into this? Voters spoke in the election. They want Republicans to put a brake on this president. That's what Kyl is doing by calling for more time. You'd think a president who prizes thoughtful consideration would appreciate this sentiment. (And tell both Bush presidents that politics stops at the water's edge). The Russians want this deal because they think it limits our ability to deploy missile defenses. The moment Republicans tried to ensure that it wouldn't and tried to change the language of the treaty, the Russians backed off. Just this week, North Korea shot missiles at South Korea. How are we going to defend against this kind of belligerence without a strong missile defense? As far as relations with Russia go,  Russians operate in their national interest. They're not going to suddenly decide to work—or not work—with us depending on whether we ratify this treaty. And regardless of whether $85 billion is enough money to modernize our arsenal, we learned that we need to do more to keep it ready when missiles recently went offline in Wyoming.

Cutting the deficit.
The liberal approach: I support Rep. Jan Schakowsky's plan. It protects the middle and lower class and realigns rates for business and the wealthy. The richest 1 percent possess more net worth than the bottom 90 percent in part because tax rates for the wealthy have  fallen steeply   over the last few decades while pretax income has increased. Tax revenue should be increased by taxing dividends and capital gains like regular income and instituting a progressive estate tax. Plus, we should eliminate tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas. Cuts in discretionary spending should be smart—removing outdated defense programs and farm-subsidy programs. Health care cost increases would be contained by offering a true public option. Finally, there must be some increase in stimulative spending to produce growth, which will bring in revenue to shrink the deficit faster than tax increases or spending cuts.

The conservative approach: I like Rep. Paul Ryan's plan. To reduce the rising cost of health care, a major driver of the deficit, it shifts ownership of health coverage from government and employers to individuals. Individuals buying coverage for themselves—across state lines if they want to—would seek the best bargain, and force prices down as providers compete for their dollars. Medicaid payments are made to states in block grants, which makes the spending more efficient. Social Security solvency is achieved by allowing younger workers to invest in personal accounts, which will grow faster than the current system, and there is a minimum guarantee that the return will at least match what a person would have gotten under the current system. Tax simplification would reduce the system to just two rates. Business would pay a consumption tax, which is also simpler, causes less inefficient business activity for the purposes of simply avoiding taxes, and allows expenses to be deucted immediately which encourages investment.

The centrist approach: Ryan's plan is too radical even for his own caucus, which barely supports it (and I'm not even going t get into the objections of liberals like Paul Krugman, who says it ignores revenues lost from tax cuts). Schakowsky's plan, on the other hand, relies too heavily on tax increases and offers no political compromises, and as a result couldn't pass even in a Congress controlled by Democrats. A more realistic approach would be a mix of the ones offered in the Simpson-Bowles or Rivlin-Domenici plans. The key is a plan that spreads the pain around so that as a political matter no one group appears to have benefitted unfairly. On the tax side it would trade lower marginal rates for removal of tax breaks for the home mortgage interest deduction and the deduction for state and local taxes which would raise revenue but also make the system more efficient. On the spending side everything gets cut—from defense spending to NPR. But there also needs to be a focus on growth, because deficit reduction cannot be achieved by tax increases and spending cuts alone. As the CBO has said, 1 percent increase in economic growth would increase tax revenues by $2.5 trillion over 10 years.

Will Palin run for president?

Yes: She's said she'll run if no one else picks up the mantle. She has pledged that she can beat Obama. She has said her husband is leaning toward supporting a run. She's done everything but scream it. In the recent election, she endorsed the governors of Iowa and South Carolina, key early GOP primary states. She backed the Senate candidate in New Hampshire, another one. She's also used her Facebook page to talk about her record as governor, something you wouldn't do if you just wanted to sweeten your Fox News contract. Have you seen the gauzy Everywoman ads? Plus, no politician who bathes in the constant hymns from supporters calling on her to run can reject the call. The genes will take over control of the host. Can she win? That's a separate question.

No: This flirtation with running is all about selling her new book. Palin likes the limelight but doesn't like the grind. She boasts about how being outdoors in Alaska is better than a stuffy political office. Running for president would be a mostly unpleasant experience that takes her away from home and family. She is enjoying being who she is. A presidential campaign would require compromises she doesn't want to make.  

Trying terrorists in federal court

Bad idea: Ahmed Ghailani was responsible for the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and yet he almost went free. The jury acquitted him of 284 charges, including every charge of murder (there were 224!), even though there was evidence linking him to the purchase of TNT used in the Tanzania bombing. The judge did not even allow the prosecutors to call the witness who could prove that claim. In civilian court, jurors can be forced to make a deal with a holdout in order to avoid a retrial, which appears to be what happened in this case. Al-Qaida terrorists abuse the protections they are afforded in civilian courts. A military commission would have been better. Congress and the Obama administration have approved of such commissions, which allow prosecutors greater leeway in submitting evidence and which feature juries made up of military officers, who would be less unpredictable than those made up of ordinary civilians.

Good idea: It's ridiculous to judge the entire American judicial system on the vagaries of a single case. Why is it so important to have civilian trials? For the same reason so much evidence was not allowed at trial: Because American principles stand for something. The judge didn't allow the key witness in this trial because the government found out about that witness only by torturing Ghailani. This trial was a triumph considering how many principles our military is supposedly fighting for were thrown out in treatment of the defendant. As Judge Lewis Kaplan told the jury, the trial showed that "American justice can be rendered calmly, deliberately, and fairly by ordinary people, people who are not beholden to any government, not even ours." And let's not mischaracterize military trials. They don't allow evidence obtained by torture, either.

Can Obama win in 2012? 

No: By his own admission, the president has had a hard time communicating what he thinks and how he feels. He's been trying for almost two years and hasn't succeeded. Bill Clinton was able to come back in 1994 because he could make those connections so easily. (I'll wait while you make your joke about how easily; meanwhile, pass the yams.) Obama can't fake that connection. Also, Clinton had a far better economy to work with. In the 2010 election, Obama couldn't turn out young voters or minorities despite an exhaustive effort. In some cases, performance among those groups was lower than in 2006. He's not going to be able to count on those groups in 2012. There are also now Republican governors in the key swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, and Wisconsin. That gives the eventual GOP candidate a leg up on organizing.

Yes: The electorate that punished Democrats in 2010 will not be the same electorate in 2012. The 2012 electorate—younger, more African-Americans, more Latinos—will favor Obama. A few years of GOP control in the House will remind depressed Democratic groups why they need to turn out in elections. Political science shows that governors don't matter as much as the pundits think. Independents and moderates who soured on Democrats in this last election will judge Obama against an opponent, not against himself. And Obama will be blessed by his opponents. Even if he doesn't get Sarah Palin, his preferred candidate, the ultimate GOP opponent will get the nomination only by courting the Tea Party faction. That will produce a nominee along the lines of Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, Ken Buck, or Joe Miller—Tea Party-approved but deadly in the general election.

Ground Zero Mosque

Let it stay: The Islamic cultural center known as Park51 is not a threat to American values, but a representation of a key American value: religious tolerance. The stated mission of the organization behind the project, the  Cordoba Initiative, is to build "interfaith tolerance and respect." It is promoting the exact opposite of what the 9/11 bombers believed. Its location is serendipitous, because it shows the good that Islam does just a few blocks from the horror done in Islam's name. One of the people leading the project, Abdul Rauf, is committed to reclaiming Islam from radicals like Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden, by contrast, is committed to purifying Islam of initiatives like the one Rauf is promoting. He is as much Bin Laden's enemy as George Bush is.

Move it: Why does there need to be a mosque right there? It's a matter of respecting the pain of that place for many Americans and New Yorkers and of honoring the dead. Of course Islam does not equal violence, but the 9/11 attackers made their attack in the name of Islam. Yes, everyone should be educated about the distinctions between true Islam and their distorted version, but can't we do it somewhere else? Also, the good imam who is behind this effort is not the innocent you suggest. Just days after 9/11, Abdul Rauf  suggested  "United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened" and that "in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the U.S.A." When Carmelite nuns moved into an abandoned building at the edge of Auschwitz, it created a similar tension. They had the best intentions—they wanted to pray for the dead—but Pope John Paul II gave more weight to the raw feelings of Jews and asked the nuns to move. 

Does the GOP have a mandate?

Yes: Regardless of what voters tell pollsters about Republicans, they actually voted for Republicans. They gave them control of the House to put a block on the administration. By taking immediate measures to show that Republicans are listening to voters—by enacting a ban on earmarks, targeting wasteful government spending, and other ideas—GOP leaders will only build trust. Plus, whether they actually have a mandate or not, they have to act as if they have one because Tea Party activists have made it clear that they are on "probation."

No: Unlike after the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress, when the ruling party had public support, polls today show that Republicans are no more popular than Democrats. This was the consistent finding of pre-election polls, and it has remained true in those taken after the election. A recent CNN poll, with 48 percent seeing both the GOP and Democrats as equally unfavorable, is typical. Republicans have claimed that they are listening to the American people, but polls show people have different priorities than GOP leaders. In election exit polls, 37 percent—a near plurality—said they wanted Congress to spend more to create jobs, something Republicans say they don't want to do. Republicans also say that tax cuts are a priority. In exit polls, only 17 percent of those asked said they should be a priority. And those voters who do want cuts want them designed differently than GOP leaders do. One recent poll showed that 57 percent of the public either wants the Bush tax cuts extended for only those families making less than $250,000 or not extended at all. So did another. So did the exit polls on Election Day.

Should Obama cooperate or fight with the GOP?

Fight: Obama tried the cooperation route once before, and there are now 63 new House Republicans and six new Republicans in the Senate. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner show no interest in working with him. McConnell has repeatedly said his primary goal is defeating Obama in 2012. Boehner and House leaders refuse to cooperate on extending the Bush tax cuts. They'd rather taxes go up on everyone than compromise. Plus, they can't cooperate. Any Republican who works with the White House will face a Tea Party-backed primary challenge. If Obama fights for jobs, independent voters will come along. Oh, and Obama needs liberals in 2012. They don't want to see cooperation with the enemy.

Don't Fight: The president shouldn't cave, exactly, but his first job should be to show voters that he hears them. So he'll heed the polling that shows the vast majority of the public wants cooperation. This is the core of why people liked him in 2008, and if he is going to recapture that constituency, the president has to remind people why they liked him in the first place. As the president has said, Obama lost independents and moderates because he took so many emergency measures, it looked like he was bent on expanding government. If he spends some time at least looking like he's willing to work with the party associated with shrinking government, then he can help correct that perception. And then if he ultimately does have to fight more overtly, he can at least say that he tried to cooperate.

Catch-all

If you did not find the argument your family is having in the above list, there is one failsafe measure that you can apply to engage a dearly loved rival holding forth during the meal. "What proof do you have," you might ask, after they make their strongest claim. Often you will find that towering opinions are based on nothing more than a gut feeling. You can then point out that if they want to proclaim on the strong messages they're receiving from their stomach, the best way to do so is to thank the host.

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AP Video: President Obama Pardons a Turkey

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