Slate’s Annual Guide to Your Thanksgiving Dinner-Table Arguments

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 23 2011 12:56 PM

Occupy the Gravy

Slate’s annual guide to your Thanksgiving dinner-table arguments.

Turkey Tussle.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

First, a prayer: May your Thanksgiving gathering be the supercommittee of our dreams, which is to say a happy meeting where everyone gets along despite their ideological differences and divides the pie equitably. We recognize, however, that some families are like the actual supercommittee—and the day may end with one faction pouting to Chris Matthews in the guest room after a political debate. In that case, the better prayer is always Loudon Wainwright’s Thanksgiving one: "If I argue with a loved one, Lord, please make me the winner." In that spirit, we present Slate's annual guide to this year's political arguments, so that you might be lightly armed for small skirmishes.

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.

If your family embarks on an argument not found in the list below, there is one catchall defense against your blowhard uncle. "What proof do you have?" you might ask. Often you will find that towering opinions are based on nothing more than a gut feeling. You can then point out to your uncle that if he wants to make pronouncements on the strong messages he’s receiving from his stomach, the best way to do so is to thank the host.

Who Killed the Supercommittee?

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Republicans: The GOP never wanted to budge on taxes, particularly the Bush tax cuts, which were designed to expire a year ago. Just look at the GOP presidential candidates: They wouldn't even consider a deal that had $10 in spending reductions for every $1 of increased revenue. Republicans offered a "compromise" of $300 billion in revenue increases through loophole closures, but that was a shell game, locking in permanently lower rates for the most well-off  and resulting in a net increase in the deficit. You don't get points for giving up after-dinner chocolates when you order the brownie fudge sundae. Even if you argue that the long-term problem is spending, the more urgent problem is the growing budget deficit. Everyone has to chip in. Democrats were willing to agree to $500 billion in Medicare savings, which ain't nothing. You can't attack the deficit problem with spending cuts alone unless you shred the contract between the government and its people. And as Ezra Klein notes, the party that gave more ground in negotiations was the Democrats.

Democrats: You don't raise taxes in a recession. The wealthy, whose taxes you want to raise by tinkering with the Bush tax cuts, are the ones who invest. Since most small-business people pay taxes only on their personal returns, the added burden will hurt them most of all. Still, Republicans offered a good-faith compromise, which even Sen. Dick Durbin praised, that would have raised revenue through loophole closures. Democrats wouldn't take yes for an answer. The entitlement reforms they offered were too small. The president set a trap. He used the committee to get the debt limit increase, then refused to get involved in the committee’s work. He wanted it to fail so that he could blame Republicans in the campaign.

Nonpartisan Deficit Hawk: Don’t apportion blame. Celebrate. The supercommittee failed in its mission of making bad policy. This is no tragedy. Usually politicians succeed in making bad policy. In this case, the $1.2 trillion in cuts are more likely to happen than by any other deficit reduction gimmickry, and the pain is going to come from all parts of the budget. The Bush tax cuts, which were always designed to expire, will do so. Spending restraint has been enforced. The military will be crippled? Don’t bet on it. When it comes to protecting itself, no institution in Washington is more cunning than the Defense Department. In the 13 months before these cuts kick in, it’ll find a way to offset them.

Does Occupy Wall Street Matter?

No: Lootings and assaults? Even Jon Stewart said it was out of control. Newt was right: Take a bath and then get a job. Perhaps the movement might have raised awareness of the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, but the misbehavior of the lesser elements and the lack of a clear message will make Occupy Wall Street a forgotten moment in history. It is not a Tea Party  of the left. Tea Partiers rallied peacefully, politely, and they didn't cost the taxpayers anything. Their message was simple and clear: less debt, less spending. They changed the shape of a party and the subject of our national conversation. President Obama became obsessed with the deficit and went against his own party in the debt limit deal because of Tea Party pressure. He didn't do much in reaction to the OWS protesters.

Yes: Since the protests, the number of news accounts talking about income inequality has skyrocketed. The pepper-spraying of an 84-year-old woman created more sympathy for the movement than isolated cases of violence. Besides, it’s not as if Tea Party culture, which allowed racists to feel comfortable slurring the president, is open and welcoming. In the end, the numbers are on our side. The 1 percent might control the lawyers and the media, but the 99 percent understand the movement—because we're talking about problems they see every day in their own lives.

 Is Obama a Leader?

No (conservative version): New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had it right: "It's the chief executive's job to bring people together and to provide leadership in difficult situations. I don't see that happening." And it didn’t begin with his failure to push the supercommittee. He ducked the findings of his own deficit commission. He turned his health care plan over to Congress, creating a patchwork mess. In the 2008 campaign, he said he would change the tone in Washington, but except for a few bipartisan cocktail parties, he never really took any chances to make rhetoric of 2008 a reality. On foreign policy, just remember one phrase: "Leading from behind." What does that even mean?

No (liberal version): From the start, Obama caved in negotiations with Republicans. The stimulus was too small. He should have used reconciliation in Congress to pass the public option or to get real energy legislation. When he negotiated the deal to extend the Bush tax cuts, he should have extracted a promise from Republicans not to turn the debt ceiling into a fight. The passionate Obama of the 2008 campaign has disappeared. You never know where this president stands, and when he does stand firm it's usually temporary.

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