Relativity and the art of argument by comparison


It’s a word that’s pregnant with comparative valuation. And within it lies the power to consolidate an otherwise broad and far-reaching argument into a single sentence.

The rhetorical structure is a familiar one: “XYZ is the greatest BLANK since ABC.” It is concise and compact, yet bubbling with innumerable juicy bits of unspoken debate detail. And the real beauty of the structure is, if you adjust the variables in just the right way you can make even inane or substance-less comparisons sound weighty.

Recently, political commentator and professional provocateur Dylan Matthews took to to make what he seemed to think was a bold declaration: “Barack Obama is the most consequential Democratic president since LBJ.”

Comparing and contrasting presidents is always good sport for political pundits and, in this case, the significant passage of time between the two presidencies makes the comparison seem compelling. But a gentle scratching of the argument’s surface exposes it as silliness bordering on deception.

In the 40 years that separated the Johnson and Obama presidencies, there were two democratic presidents: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

The scholarly articles detailing the mediocrity of the Carter presidency are too numerous to list, but the real indictment of Carter’s time in office is that his presidency has essentially become a national joke. None but the most zealous Carter devotee will argue that his presidency anything other than an abject failure. On one episode of The Simpsons (the truest evidence of the calcified judgment of history), a statue of President Carter was dedicated over the apt pedestal inscription: “Malaise Forever”. ‘Nuff said.

As for Clinton, it is tempting for liberals to seize on his presidency as a time of progressive triumph amid a sea of conservative policy-making — after all, the (first?) Clinton presidency was a time of strong economic growth, only minor military skirmishes and general international calm; peace and prosperity across the board.

But the truth is that Clinton essentially governed as a Republican. In much the same way the Dwight Eisenhower (the lone Republican president between Hoover and Nixon) enacted fairly liberal policies that were basically indistinguishable from the more centrist wing of the opposite party, Bill Clinton’s significant accomplishments read like the political wish list of a middle-of-the-road, slightly right-leaning conservative: bolstering of local police forces, decreased welfare rolls, the Defense Of Marriage Act, Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, NAFTA, dramatic reduction in government spending — all are things that most conservatives would either comfortably accept or vehemently support. Among Clinton’s most memorable presidential quotes (and one of the few that wasn’t delivered in the context of a deposition or inquisition) is: “the era of big government is over!”

Even the economic growth over which President Clinton presided (the oft cited “longest period of peacetime economic expansion in American History”) was founded on basic laissez faire policies: manage the federal budget responsibly, encourage work over welfare, then get out of the way and let innovative companies like Google, Microsoft and Intel do what they do to create jobs, wealth and growth.

In comparison to his post-LBJ predecessors, therefore, Barack Obama’s achievements (moving the nation’s poor to a federally-guaranteed healthcare system, addressing an economic crisis with federal economic stimulus money, expanded financial and environmental regulations) are both sweepingly liberal and wildly successful. But the bar is low.

By Carter/Clinton standards, Obama’s more liberal accomplishments are substantial, but by LBJ (and pre-LBJ) standards they barely move the needle. Matthews does his best to inflate the liberal bona fides of the Obama record, attaching to Obamacare the weight of a (supposed) century of struggle for national health care, giving Obama credit for finally solving immigration (he didn’t), wage discrimination (it’s not a real issue), and the Iran nuclear rogram (he made matters worse), even declaring victory on Obama’s behalf for things he had nothing to do with, like the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. But a fair analysis of the Obama presidency suggests it was less an unbroken string of liberal triumphs than a gentle swing back from the heavily Republican platform that held sway since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.

With the Obama presidency placed in appropriate context, the declaration that his is “most consequential Democratic president since LBJ” is decidedly less dramatic. It’s a little like saying that Vladimir Klitschko is the “most consequential heavyweight champion since Mike Tyson” — it’s technically true, but since Mike’s Tyson’s prime the world heavyweight belt has been worn by a succession of tomato cans. So the comparison, despite it’s lengthy timeline, loses something upon further examination. What you’re really saying is there haven’t been any consequential heavyweights since Mike Tyson, but of those who have existed Vladimir Klitschko is the best.

Such is the nature of argument by comparison. If you measure your subject’s worth from the signpost of a predecessor, his value can only ever be as good as the intervening players.