WASHINGTON — The idea that “false choices” are distorting our politics is under attack. I want to defend the concept for both substantive and personal reasons.

The canary in the coal mine was my colleague Ruth Marcus’ column on March 31 in which she argued directly: “It’s time to retire the false choice.”

“As a rhetorical device, particularly as a political rhetorical device, the false choice has outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any,” she wrote. “The phrase has become a trite substitute for serious thinking. It serves too often to obscure rather than to explain.”

While I empathize with Marcus’ frustration that false choices are sometimes invoked to evade choices altogether, I respectfully but passionately disagree with her. And she has company in her skepticism.

A few days after her column appeared, NPR’s Ari Shapiro offered a resolutely fair, balanced and entertaining piece about President Obama’s affection for calling out false choices. He included the views of Mary Kate Cary, a false choice critic and former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush: “It’s tempting for the speaker to distort the two extremes in such a way that it makes the critics angry and invites a response like, well, that isn’t at all what I said.”

Cary is right that the false choice idea is easily misused. My favorite recent rendering of what a classically false false choice — sorry about that — looks like was offered by my friend Hendrik Hertzberg on his New Yorker blog.

Praising Obama’s George Washington University budget speech earlier this month, Hertzberg said he was relieved that the president did not descend into the worst kind of false choicery. “I know it’s silly,” Hertzberg wrote, “but I was a little worried we might get something uncomfortably akin to ‘We must reject both extremes, those who say we shouldn’t help the old and the sick and those who say we should.’ ” Me, too; I’m glad Obama didn’t go near that sort of thing.

But if there are false false choices, there are also real false choices. And here I should acknowledge my personal stake in this debate. Twenty years ago, I wrote a book called “Why Americans Hate Politics” arguing that liberals and conservatives often imposed a series of false choices on voters that prevented them from expressing their true preferences. Many voters preferred an intelligent “both/and” politics to an artificially constrained “either/or” approach.

The classic case for me was the phony division of Americans into “feminist” and “pro-family” camps. I noted that most Americans accepted the equality of men and women but were concerned about how new work arrangements were affecting family life.

“Women who take time off from their careers to care for young children are routinely ‘punished’ by having their opportunities for promotion reduced,” I wrote. “Is it ‘feminist’ or is it ‘pro-family’ to suggest that this practice is unfair? Is it ‘feminist’ or ‘pro-family’ to contend that this practice shows how little value society really places on the work that parents do?”

There were and are a slew of other paralyzing false choices in our political dialogue. President Bill Clinton wrote generously about the impact of my false choice argument on his own views in his memoir “My Life,” and then proffered an excellent catalog of false choices we needed to avoid. Among them: Between “excellence or equity in education”; between “quality or universal access in health care”; between “a cleaner environment or more economic growth”; between “crime prevention or punishing criminals.”

Unmasking false choices is especially important to progressives for whom the task of finding the proper balances — between government and the market, between greater equality and the need for incentives, between a respect for tradition and a commitment to individual freedom — is close to the heart of their political philosophy. In the current budget battle, the quintessential false choice is the core assertion of the House Republicans’ plan: that we have to choose either program cuts or tax increases. They go only for program cuts. Our purpose should be about finding the right balance between the two.

Marcus, Cary and other false choice critics can perform a useful service if they push politicians away from using the term either to caricature views they disagree with or to avoid making choices altogether. But we should not abandon the idea that battling false choices is essential to an honest framing of the choices we truly and urgently need to make.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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