How to Win This Year’s Thanksgiving Day Political Arguments

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 27 2013 3:10 PM

Turkey.gov

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

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Illustration by Mark Stamaty

First, a prayer: May your Thanksgiving dinner be free of glitches or arguments about glitches. The annual family gathering is the wrong place to have a political argument. Thanksgiving debates are often a proxy for old grievances or an outlet for holiday stress—the turkey is taking too long, the flight was delayed, or the kids won't stop sulking. Also, anyone who really wants to sink their teeth into a meaty debate—at the possible expense of fellow feeling, family warmth, and ready pie—isn't going to be convinced of anything. So don't try to persuade them because you'll just be frustrated.

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.

Instead, arm yourself with diversions. YouTube videos of cats are a crowd pleaser. Load one onto your smartphone and deploy at the first mention of Sen. Ted Cruz. This year at our house, the dishwasher seems to be having sympathy glitches with healthcare.gov, which might sound like a pain, but tending to it will give me a ready excuse to exit the table if things get too hot. (I expect that the vast majority of dishwashing users will have a positive experience by the end of the month.)

Despite similar warnings, in the six years Slate has been publishing its guide to Thanksgiving political arguments, we have learned that many people still can’t resist. Many find themselves offering a version of Loudon Wainwright's Thanksgiving prayer: "If I argue with a loved one, Lord, please make me the winner." In that spirit, we present our guide to some of this year's thorniest political arguments. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, there might be something in here to help you hold your own long enough to knock over a glass and make a run for it. 

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President Obama’s Deal With Iran:

A horrible idea: When the leaders of Hezbollah say a deal is a win for Iran, you know you got burned. A few nice tweets from President Hassan Rouhani shouldn't fool anyone—Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism committed to the destruction of Israel. If that’s not enough, Tehran props up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s murderous regime, which has killed more than 100,000 of its citizens, something the Obama administration once cared about. It used to be just embarrassing that America had outsourced its Syria policy to Vladimir Putin, but Washington cutting a deal with Iran is more troubling. Was Obama's dithering and confusion over bombing Syria driven by his desire to protect secret negotiations with Iran? Surely, Israel is made more vulnerable by Obama’s accommodation with Tehran. In addition to weakening our strongest Middle East ally, we're also further damaging relations with Saudi Arabia.

But apparently President Obama has been fooled—loosening sanctions in return for what is, at best, a mild slowdown in Iran's nuclear program. There is nothing in this deal that says Iran cannot enrich uranium. In fact, the deal says the opposite. The centrifuges are still spinning. The heavy water reactor still exists—and Iran seems to think it can keep building it. Once Iran has gotten its money and strung along the West, Tehran could make a rush for a nuclear breakout in eight weeks

Sanctions were working. The supreme leader is never going to surrender a nuclear weapons program that is the key to his country's security and the greatest piece of leverage he will ever have in dealing with the Great Satan. So you have to use sanctions to force him. That’s what got Iran to the table in the first place. This deal removes that pressure. Now we have the Iranian foreign minister telling Congress what it can do about sanctions. The administration has handed over leverage to the Iranians by wanting this deal too much. Given that posture, who knows what the administration will give up as a part of the final talks?

A step toward peace: Just citing the Munich Agreement in 1938 is no substitute for a reasoned argument. If it were, then Newt Gingrich would have been right when he said Ronald Reagan was like Neville Chamberlain for meeting with Gorbachev. You may want Iran to give up its nuclear program completely, but that's not realistic. Even if total dismantlement were the endgame, it would start gradually—as this deal outlines. This is an interim agreement, not the final treaty. If Iran does not forgo building a nuclear arsenal or tries to evade its promise to permit outside inspections, then sanctions snap back into place and Congress will be free to impose tougher ones. Washington risks nothing and this pause interrupts what was essentially a march to a war. I’d prefer not to have another war, and apparently the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff doesn't think it's a good idea either. The cash Iran will receive—$7 billion in frozen assets—is a drop in the bucket compared to the sanctions that are still in place. So there is still plenty of economic incentive for Iran to offer more as a part of a comprehensive deal. In six months, we will either have a deal no one thought was possible or the United States will have even more leverage to isolate Tehran internationally—either way, we win.

President Obama's Health Care Plan:

You are a fan: Yes, the website was a disaster, and there's no excuse. But let's not forget the context. Republican governors fought allowing exchanges in their states, adding to the burden on the federal government. House Republicans made it clear they would never appropriate the funds needed to implement the U.S. law fully. Still, let's stipulate that the website is a mess. But what's the central problem—the website or the law? It's just a website. How do we know that? Look at the success of the state exchanges. People are signing up, which means it's not the product that is a problem, but the access to the product. If the product were bad, there would be no fixing it. At least you can fix a website.

Yes, I know, the president said you could keep your plan. Presidents say a lot of things that sometimes turn out not to be true despite their best intentions. Some even invade other countries on the basis of information that turns out to be wrong. It’s bad to have your access to a superior health care plan delayed, but not as bad as botching the invasion of an entire country. The president has apologized and moved to fix the matter. When all is said and done, the number of people who will want to stay on their previous plans where they got worse coverage and no subsidy will be small. (The number of happy people, on the other hand, is growing.) There's even some evidence that the website is actually working a lot better, and the more it works, the more there will be good stories about people actually being helped.

Plus, at this time of Thanksgiving, we should reflect on the people this law is intended to help. Two-thirds of those signing up on the individual insurance exchanges nationwide are expected to be people who didn't have any insurance previously, either because they couldn't afford it or because they were barred by preexisting conditions. Let’s not compare this law to metaphysical perfection, but to the brutal system it seeks to improve. Forty-eight million people in this country are without insurance, which is a national disgrace. They're not as comfortable as we are. A lot of them are now able to sign up for Medicaid, a program we've never debated at this table because it's pretty popular. The law anticipates the costs associated with that spike in Medicaid enrollment. (Bean counters at the Congressional Budget Office nevertheless claim that the law will cut the deficit by $109 billion by 2022.) Health care inflation, one of the drivers of government debt, is already down because of the Affordable Care Act.

You are against Obamacare: The website is a mess because the program is a mess. As Mom used to say, "What starts out twisted stays twisted." The president oversold the benefits of the website just as he oversold how painless the entire law was going to be. He thought he could get away saying that if you liked your insurance you would be able to keep it. Why? Because he assumed the people who didn’t like their old plans would love their freshly minted Obamacare plans. Guess what, they don't. Now he's had to spin like mad—including making the estimates of coverage on the website look better than they areand modify parts of the law by delaying the employer mandate and open enrollment next year. He faces a fundamental problem: The federal government can't take on a project of this size. That’s why 56 percent of the public doesn’t agree with the underlying goal that every American should have health insurance, a record high.

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