The Boehner Heartburn

There’s a lot of outrage over dumb politics stuff on the internet, but this is the kind of thing that really makes me mad.

Chuck Todd asked John Boehner if he thinks that there’s too much money in politics, Boehner said we spend more money on antacids than we do on politics, Politifact rated that claim as false, liberals called Boehner a liar, Boehner went on raising a bunch of money for elections, as is his primary job. No one, apparently, stopped to think about whether comparing the price of elections with the price of Tums tells us anything important or not.

Say I asked you how much money you spent on movie tickets last month, and you told me it was less than you spent on Tylenol. Clearly, you either had a really bad headache month or you didn’t go to see that many movies. But presumably I asked you that because I was concerned about whether you were prioritizing your spending correctly. Money is a finite resource for most people, so we often wonder if we’re spending it on the right things, and comparing the amount spent on different categories of purchases can help figure that out. The reasonable concern about the amount of money being spent on elections, however, has nothing to do with that. No one is worried that the Koch brothers or Tom Steyer aren’t going to be able to afford another car elevator because they blew their bankroll on electioneering. We’re not afraid that they’re not getting their money’s worth. Saying “there’s too much money in politics” means you’re concerned money gives rich people an unfair ability to influence politicians, not that it isn’t being wisely spent. But Boehner takes advantage of the fact that usually when someone asks how much somethings costs, it’s because they’re worried that it’s not a good value. So pointing out something that we spend more money on looks like it’s reassuring us that there’s really no problem after all. Even if it turns out that Boehner’s claim about antacids isn’t true, he’s already shifted the debate to an question about frugality when it was originally one about fairness.

Now, this misdirection is partly Chuck Todd’s fault. He’s clearly so caught off guard by Boehner’s mention of antacids that he can’t think of a follow-up. But what he should have said is, “I’m sorry Mr. Speaker, I don’t think I asked that question very clearly. What I meant was, some people are worried that the amount of money being spent on elections means that rich people have influence on policy-makers that people without resources don’t have. Do you think that’s a problem?” But he didn’t, and now everyone is talking about the relative costs of polls and Rolaids, not whether being rich gets you more political influence.

John Boehner’s not dumb. He understands that people who favor campaign finance restrictions aren’t trying to pinch pennies on election spending. And I don’t think he’s really dishonest either. If you managed to ask him the right questions, he’d probably explain that he thinks the right to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections is part of every American’s right to free speech, and that he doesn’t think it’s unfair because there are groups and individuals from all over the political spectrum donating huge amounts of money. But Boehner doesn’t want to explain that to you if he doesn’t have to, because then you might actually be able to see where you disagree with him. It’s better to divert the conversation to something irrelevant and if in the course of doing that he says something controversial, all the better, because now everyone’s in an uproar about what he said, not what the actual issue is. Even Slate’s Mike Pesca, usually quick to point it out when people miss the point, spends 9 minutes trying to figure out the right category to compare without noticing that any comparison is completely irrelevant to the ethics of campaign finance.

All politicians are good at dodging questions, but Boehner is really a virtuoso at not only not giving answers, but creating controversies that make people forget what the question was in the first place. Remember when he said he thought congress “should be judged not by how many new laws we create” but by “how many we repeal?”  Boehner deftly shifted from a question about gridlock to the familiar left-right debate about the size of government in general. Personally, I think concerns about congressional “productivity” are a little misguided, but I can imagine if you were someone who cared about that, you ought to say, “I don’t care whether you’re making new laws or repealing old ones, I just want you to do something!” But instead we’re talking about the role of government in regulating the economy, and everyone is lining up on their familiar sides.

In the Speaker’s honor, I propose that we call this tactic of dodging a question while stirring up a distracting controversy at the same time “The Boehner Heartburn,” as in, “Chuck Todd really got Heartburned by John Boehner on Meet The Press this weekend.” Ok, that might be a little bit of a stretch. But whether we give the trick a proper name or not, let’s stop falling for it. Demand that politicians and journalists give us something substantial we can actually digest, not spicy morsels that just make everyone sweaty and upset.

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