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. 

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.

Another nightmare is coming: People won't be able to keep their doctor the way the president promised either. That’s because, in an effort to keep costs down, insurance companies are slashing doctor payments and limiting the number of doctors they will cover.

It's called the Affordable Care Act, but according to, the Kaiser Family Foundation premiums in 2014 will likely be higher in most states. Even if they can get the website moving again, the law faces a slew of hurdles—the beleaguered IRS has to oversee the enforcement, next year those companies with more than 50 employees who were given a one-year reprieve from the mandate will be forced to join, and the system for paying insurers for "risk corridors" hasn’t been worked out. But this is about more than a health care law. This was the president's signature legislative accomplishment. His team had three years to prepare, and even though many involved knew it was going to collapse on launch and tests just before the launch failed to handle 500 users, they went ahead anyway. Health care inflation may be down, but that's because 77 percent of that cost decrease comes from the recession, not a law that was passed in 2010.

You think the healthcare.gov failure was planned in order to create the conditions for single payer: Once the pies are served, we'll have plenty of extra tinfoil to help you make your hat.

Filibuster Reform:

For it: There's nothing in the Constitution about the filibuster. The Senate changes its rules to meet the times. In an earlier era, members broke across party lines. Now everyone votes in lockstep. The most conservative Democrat has a more liberal voting record than the most liberal Republican. In this new environment, the minority has used the filibuster excessively. In the history of the republic, there have been 168 cloture motions filed on behalf of executive and judicial nominations. Half of them have occurred during the Obama administration. A little cranberry with your turkey is fine, but when the cranberry replaces the turkey something has gone wrong. In a lot of cases the filibuster was being used to block appointments not because the candidate wasn't qualified but because Republicans didn't like the underlying law. Republicans didn’t object to Richard Cordray as much as they objected to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau he was supposed to lead. It was also true of the Court of Appeals judges that caused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to finally use the "nuclear option” last week. Republicans didn't object to them as judges—just that they would give Obama a perceived advantage on the country’s second most important court. Fortunately for everyone, by removing the 60-vote threshold, more qualified people are going to come forward and accept administration jobs because they won't have to endure such a crazy process.

This isn't some Democratic Party gambit. It was Republican leader Bill Frist who first came up with the nuclear option in 2005. That was back when there were far fewer cloture motions. The nature of the institution is changing: Only 32 senators have been there three terms or longer, down from 44 six years ago, and half of the body has been there one term or less. You long for a Senate with norms as quaint as the spittoons still on the floor of the chamber, but that Senate doesn't exist any more. If it did, Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee wouldn't have been able to take over the body as they did during the government shutdown against the will of the majority of the members in their own party. With that kind of partisanship, the polite rules of the past prevent anything from getting done. Republicans have promised to retaliate, but I thought you were fighting this on constitutional grounds? So your answer to what you see as tyrannical actions is the promise of more tyranny?

Against it: By lowering the number of votes it takes to break a filibuster, the Democrats have helped the Senate become more like the House of Representatives where the majority controls everything. The Senate is supposed to be different. This is more than just a limited modification that only applies to judges and appointments. There was once an unwritten rule that this change could only take place at the start of a session. That meant the Senate could evaluate the change on its own merits. Now, by changing the filibuster rules midterm, Democrats have made it easier to change the filibuster easier in the future when the minority launches a filibuster to block a Supreme Court nominee or a piece of legislation.

Democrats have argued that lowering the standard is simply a move toward a basic democratic principle of majority rule, but the motives were not that high-born in this case. If they were, Democrats would have been able to produce this magic trick at the beginning of the Senate session. This was a political move: an attempt to secure Obama’s legacy by changing the partisan makeup of the lower courts, especially the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. It's the court that handles all challenges to legislation and regulation—EPA rules on power plants and financial services regulations under Dodd–Frank. Now the court will lean left and protect Obama. Democrats site inflated numbers to justify filibuster reform, arguing that Republicans have tried to block more nominations than Democrats. They are counting "cloture motions,” which are different than filibusters. If you count actual filibusters, 10 of George W. Bush’s nominees were filibustered, versus five Obama nominees.

Your new Democratic senators—more than a half have never served in the minority—don't know what it's like to rely on the filibuster to hold the majority in check. They are being shortsighted. Democratic Senators once believed this; Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden did. Republicans will be glad to show them what it's like being in the minority after the 2014 elections. 

Government Shutdown:

Good idea: The confrontation over the budget let the public know exactly which party was willing to do whatever it took to avoid the disaster of the Affordable Care Act. Out in the real America they want people who will stand up and fight for what they believe in. Standing on principle is never a bad idea. Now that the Obamacare disaster has arrived, the president's approval rating is falling. Public opinion about the president's health care law is as bad as it has ever been, and people know which party was standing up for them all along. 

Bad idea (Moderate Republican version): Obamacare was going to be a disaster anyway. Our task is to show that we can govern. Showing principle is great, but you have to get elected to do things to change the system. These debating society adventures hurt our party's image by reinforcing the idea that we are so obstructionist that we’ve lost all good sense. The ploy did nothing to slow the law or decrease its popularity. The country was willing to back a showdown with the president over the deficit. We found the one thing the country was not willing to abide: shutting down the government over defunding health care. Nearly every poll taken showed that a majority of the public opposed that gambit.

Bad idea (Democrat version): The government shutdown cost the economy $24 billion and over 120,000 jobs while achieving nothing. Next.

My Party Is Better Than Yours:

Republican: The president's approval ratings are as low as they have ever been. They are in George W. Bush territory. In the past, during low approval ratings moments—like the 2011 debt limit fight—people still trusted the president. That is not true now. Only 49 percent of Americans trust him in the latest CBS poll. That number was 60 percent a year ago in the same poll. Fifty-three percent do not find him trustworthy, in a recent CNN poll. In the same poll, only 40 percent said he could manage the government. Once your numbers get that low, they don't bounce back—particularly at the end of a presidency when approval ratings naturally fall. Yes, they might have recovered with Reagan and Clinton, but the economy was much better during those administrations. There is no bright side today. That's why almost 70 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, nearly the highest figure of Obama’s presidency. Yes, Obama will not be up for re-election again, but this is bleeding over into the Democratic congressional picture too, which is why it matters. In late October’s Generic Ballot polling—the crude measure that tests how the parties will fare in a nonpresidential election—Democrats polled an average of 7 points better than Republicans. Now Republicans hold a 1-point edge when you ask people whether they plan to vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate. 

Democrat: Sure, the party is in a tough patch now, but just because Democrats aren't doing well today doesn't mean that Republicans are rising. The latest CBS poll says only 21 percent of the public approves of House or Senate Republicans. That's barely up from the 18-point historic low during the shutdown. Other polls show the same thing. So, while we're not doing well, the Republican Party is hardly benefiting. And Democrats don't have a Tea Party problem. The problems the president’s health care plan is having right now only delays the day of reckoning because your party isn’t doing anything to solve its underlying problems: coming up with a message that appeals to younger voters, suburban women, and minorities. The crushing realities of being a party of Southern white males still hang over you. Republicans will return soon enough to where they have been most of 2013—at each other's throats. You don't think there is a Civil War brewing in the Republican Party? The Republican Governors Committee is actively using Washington Republicans as a foil to explain to voters how not to govern. 

Chris Christie Will Be the GOP Nominee:

Yes he can! Chris Christie proved in New Jersey that he can win anywhere. In a state with 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, he received a third of the Democratic votes, won a majority of Hispanic voters, and won women voters against a female candidate. Those numbers sound magical to a lot of Republicans who don't want to lose another presidential race, but who are also looking for a national figure to rebrand the party that has been defined by the Tea Party. These establishment Republicans often have access to cash and friends with cash. Christie can tap that money. Christie is a governor, which means he knows how to make decisions, execute, and he's not tainted by Capitol Hill Republicans That doesn't mean Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio won't run. It helps Christie if they do. They'll split the opposition vote the way Romney's opponents did and it will help Christie. Christie is also a force, which will make him more attractive as a general election candidate who can stand up to a political star like Hillary Clinton, and it means that Gov. Scott Walker, who may be this election's Tim Pawlenty, will not be able to seriously challenge him in the primaries. Christie cut taxes, took on the unions, is pro-life, and does not support same-sex marriage, making him as conservative as he needs to be to not offend his party. Christie is no Rudy Giuliani; he’s a winner.

He'll collapseGov. Christie will collapse like Rick Perry, Fred Thompson, and yes, Rudy Giuliani, because he is too brittle for the primary process. Hurricane Sandy gave him political power he won't be able to draw on as a national candidate. It will irritate him when he is criticized from all sides for taking federal money to clean up Sandy’s mess. Staying on the right side of the ideological fault lines will nibble away at him like water torture until he says something impolitic that will worry conservatives. Then it will be like a sweater-thread. The whole campaign will fall apart, opening the way for Walker or someone else. Christie's famous explosions—the shouting at some numbskull that enthralls New Jersey voters—will not play well in early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina. There's an easy line to cross between the authenticity that voters like and coming off as an authentic jerk. Conservatives don't like being handed an anointed candidate, especially one prone to lectures. That’s why in the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 68 percent said they either didn’t like Christie or didn’t know enough to like him. Christie's Wall Street fans are a strike against him in the grassroots. He also supports gun control and he took Medicaid money as a part of President Obama's health care plan, a huge no-no in conservative circles. And wait until his opponents dust off those photos of him arm-in-arm with Obama during the final days of the last presidential campaign. 

Hillary Clinton Will Be the Democratic Nominee:

Yes: There is no competition. Sixty-six percent of Democratic or Democratic-leaning respondents say they’d support Hillary Clinton in a presidential primary, according to the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. She has an enormous donor network, and a worldly, foreign-policy gloss and tough executive experience after running the State Department, something she lacked last time. The ghost of Benghazi isn't going to weigh her down in the Democratic primary since those voters think the whole thing is just another right-wing obsession. She may be from the Robert Rubin wing of the party, which irritates some liberals, but that wing is the same one that brought the Democratic Party back to power in the ’90s. Plus, for the majority of Democrats, it's not a disqualifying trait to care about business and the markets. Some people are saying, “Sure, but she looked inevitable before and look what happened.” That’s silly. Elizabeth Warren, who is a darling to the liberal wing of the party, will not be 2016’s Barack Obama. If she does run, she would be that campaign's Howard Dean. She would turn out loud and enthusiastic crowds, but there would be a ceiling to her vote.

No: The inevitability cloak is so heavy. By the time she actually runs, people will be tired of Hillary Clinton. Elections are about the future and she seems like a figure from the past. That will be amplified by the return of all the drama that collects around the Clinton name, which will make voters feel like they need a break. You can try to write off the party's liberal base—the way people wrote off New York Mayor Bill de Blasio—but the country’s economic disparities and the distaste for banks and corporations is creating a radical desire for change. Last year the top 1 percent of the country made 19 percent of the income, and the top 10 percent made 50 percent.

Clinton may try to argue that she is that change, but she is too cautious and distant to actually convey it. Her attempts to do so will unveil her weaknesses as a candidate and give a challenger an opportunity to emerge as a leader of a movement. Voters will support a movement more than they will the inevitable caretaker candidate of a system they know is broken. This matters for the general election, too. The Democratic nominee will not be able to easily duplicate Obama's success with first time and occasional voters. It will be easier to motivate these reluctant voters, to maintain the Democratic electoral advantage in the general election, if the candidate is one who can speak to the economic angst being felt by the public. That's a language it's hard for Clinton to speak.

Anyone for leftovers?