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November 17, 2011 4:40 PM Westen’s critiques remain badly off-track

By Steve Benen

In August, Drew Westen, an Emory psychology professor, had a fairly long, much-discussed New York Times piece that strongly resonated with many of President Obama’s liberal detractors. It also generated a fair amount of criticism from, among others, me.

The piece made all kinds of errors of fact and judgment, making mistakes large and small — about history, the legislative process, public opinion, and public policy. It was an indictment that read as if it was written by someone who simply didn’t know much about American politics.

A month later, Westen did it again, writing a piece for CNN about the legislative process, which made a series of obvious, disqualifying errors, which should have been clear to anyone with a familiarity with the basics.

Today, the New York Times publishes yet another Westen piece, which covers familiar ground, but which again includes claims that simply aren’t true.

Westen asserts as fact, for example, that President Obama “cut a deal with health care industry executives” in 2009 to “block” a public option as part of health care reform. That’s simply not true; there was no such deal. Westen’s piece offers a link to support the claim, but as Jonathan Bernstein explained, the source material doesn’t offer any proof.

In fact, Jonathan had a related item this morning highlighting a variety of even more glaring errors — including events that simply never occurred, which Times editors really should have caught and/or questioned — noting Westen’s “stupid” observations, and concluding that the entire piece is “a total nightmare.”

[Westen] brings you all the disregard for factual accuracy and lack of knowledge about how the government and politics work, but with none of the value added at all….

I have no idea why the Times thinks it’s a good idea to harm its reputation by giving this guy a regular slot, but it’s just awful.

I don’t doubt that Westen’s heart is in the right place — he and I probably share most of the same progressive goals and values — and I’m sure he means well. Psychology isn’t my field, but he’s probably quite accomplished in his area of expertise.

But when it comes to politics, Westen gets key details wrong; he makes up claims that aren’t true; he overlooks relevant details that conflict with his thesis; and at a fundamental level, he seems to lack a clear enough understanding of federal policymaking to draw worthwhile conclusions.

I suspect the New York Times is publishing Westen’s work because it seems inherently provocative — he’s a liberal who’s constantly complaining about Democrats and a Democratic president from the left, raising concerns that aren’t often heard. But Obama has plenty of high-profile, compelling liberal detractors — Paul Krugman, Glenn Greenwald, Robert Reich, Bob Kuttner, Keith Olbermann, et al — whose criticisms are grounded in fact. Westen’s are not.

As for why his critiques seem unique, it’s because Westen’s observations tend to be wrong.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • Danp on November 17, 2011 4:59 PM:

    I often think Krugman, Olbermann and Greenwald seek the president hs having unlimited powers, a fair media, and the cooperation of a party that is not encumbered by a political system reliant on fund raising. Weston is lazy, much like David Brooks and Thomas Friedman.

  • c u n d gulag on November 17, 2011 5:31 PM:

    Steve, you're too kind.

    Anyone check to see the DNA to see if this dope's Joe Klein's 'wag the dog's dick,' son?

    Being a Liberal bitching about Obama is the new miche to make your money.

    It's no different than the old niche where Cain, Keyes, etc, who make a great living being people who sell out their souls to make a buck.

  • mary dewan on November 17, 2011 5:44 PM:

    I do not agree. I think Westen is spot on regarding Obama's passive behavior with regard to the financial markets, the environment & health care (remember the deal with the pharmaceutical companies) to name just a few areas where he "premptively compromises" with the opposition. He seems to have a magical belief he can bring people together just by reason and good will. He has had it rough, but he has not been accused of rape, murder, improper land deals, drug running and he has not been impeached. He is Hamlet on the Potomac.

  • Thomas C on November 17, 2011 5:53 PM:

    You're way off base here, Steve. There is substantial and compelling evidence that the White House cut a deal with AHIP that scuttled the public option.

    From the NYT article you cite:

    "Several hospital lobbyists involved in the White House deals said it was understood as a condition of their support that the final legislation would not include a government-run health plan paying Medicare rates generally 80 percent of private sector rates or controlled by the secretary of health and human services."

    This is confirmed by Tom Daschle. In his book published last year, Daschle said there were two "working assumptions" in the negotiations with AHIP:

    "One was that the Senate would aim for health coverage of at least 94 percent of Americans. The other was that it would contain no public health plan."

    When Daschle was interviewed about this following publication of his book, he said the following:

    "It [i.e., the public option] was taken off the table as a result of the understanding that people had with the hospital association, with the insurance (AHIP), and others. I mean I think that part of the whole effort was based on a premise. That premise was, you had to have the stakeholders in the room and at the table. Lessons learned in past efforts is that without the stakeholders active support rather than active opposition, it's almost impossible to get this job done. They wanted to keep those stakeholders in the room and this was the price some thought they had to pay."

    Daschle tried to backpedal when this interview appeared at ThinkProgress, but his attempt to walk back his statement only succeeded in directly contradicting not only his interview but his book as well.

    I would submit that it taxes one's credulity to believe that the White House didn't deal away the public option in exchange for AHIP support for the ACA.

  • slf on November 17, 2011 5:55 PM:

    I think the main point Westen was making was that Pres. Obama was failing to give the nation a unifying narrative of what was going on -- in terms of his goals, clearly expressed, and Republican obfuscation. And I think he was/is right about that. Three years after the election, a lot of us are scratching our heads about what Pres. Obama really thinks, wants. I believe details and facts matter: look what a lethal and wretched hash the GOP has made getting them wrong. But the need to include the People, to be Leader of the People -- not just a facilitator or mediator of opposing parties -- is essential too.

  • Rich on November 17, 2011 6:01 PM:

    Westen's research is pretty far from his political inquiry. As an investigator is mostly published in 2nd or 3rd tier journals. Emory's psych dept is 2nd tier at best and very mixed in terms of scholarship--Emory itself is a place has gotten a "good name" despite very mixed faculties and a lot of deadwood. the med school is stronger than the rest of the place. CNN tends to look for cheap local talent (like Emory faculty who want a soapbox) and I suspect their use of him is what's gotten him interested in pursuing higher quality outlets and probably made him of interest to such places like the Times. The idea of a psychologist whose interested in politics gives him novelty---people like this are more rare than they were 40-50 years ago, but speaking as a psychologist, I don't think he carries it off very well.

  • kindness on November 17, 2011 6:16 PM:

    I will say Democratic & Independent Senators (you know which ones) would never have allowed the Public Option come to pass.

    But I will also say President Obama never once used the bully pulpit to press the case for the need for a Public Option. And I did resent that at the time.

    Was there a trade involved? Can't say. I do think his administration decided to take what it thought it could get. I would have preferred a little more push wrt the Public Option though.

  • suitworld on November 17, 2011 6:24 PM:

    I consider myself easily "familiar with the basics" and I thought Westen's piece hit the nail on the head--no counternarrative, Obama accepting right wing framework for his talking points, etc. The one example you offered of his error, about the public option, was rebutted above. I would count this a whiff.

  • MBunge on November 17, 2011 6:32 PM:

    "I would submit that it taxes one's credulity to believe that the White House didn't deal away the public option in exchange for AHIP support for the ACA."


    So what? Even if Barack Obama cut a deal to kill the public option, what does it matter if the result was actually passing meaningful health care reform? He succeeded where two generations of liberals had failed and if he had to sacrifice the public option to do it, why should he be criticized for that? Especially given the fact that there is no reason to think a public option could have been passed and plenty of historical evidence that fighting for it could have doomed the whole reform effort. It's one thing to complain about the decisions made when they result in failure. It's something else to whine about not succeeding in the exact perfect way you demand.

    If today's liberals had been around in the 70s when Jimmy Carter announced the Camp David Accords, they would have bitched about Carter not also managing to get peace between Israel and Syria.

    Mike

  • MBunge on November 17, 2011 6:45 PM:

    "I think the main point Westen was making was that Pres. Obama was failing to give the nation a unifying narrative of what was going on"


    Here's a thought. Maybe the President was a little too busy with trying to save the damn country from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, manage two wars, pass health care reform, repeal DADT and a few other things to worry about whether or not he was providing a "unifying narrative".

    I can't stand this brand of liberal Obama kvetching that assumes everything he's achieved is the absolute minimum any Democrat would have accomplished in the same circumstances, so not doing any better than that means Obama is a hopeless screw up.

    Mike

  • Anonymous on November 17, 2011 6:45 PM:

    Bernstein dings Westen for writing,

    After his grand bargain on the debt, for example, the presidentís approval ratings plummeted.

    Bernstein says this never happened, citing Gallup. Well, in fact, as regards Gallup numbers for the relevant period, go here.

    Obama approval/disapproval, Gallup, 7/15-7/17: 44% approval, 48% disapproval.

    Obama approval/disapproval, Gallup, 8/13-7/15: 39% approval, 53% disapproval.

    He went from -4 to -14. Westen's entitled to call that a plummet.

  • Steve M. on November 17, 2011 6:46 PM:

    That was me.

  • Steve M. on November 17, 2011 6:50 PM:

    And I'm looking at the wrong year, so screw me.

  • DAY on November 17, 2011 7:17 PM:

    "Westen gets key details wrong; he makes up claims that arenít true; he overlooks relevant details that conflict with his thesis; and at a fundamental level, he seems to lack a clear enough understanding of federal policymaking to draw worthwhile conclusions.
    "
    Bookmark this, Steve, and use it when in a hurry to meet a deadline- Just delete "Westen" and type "Brooks, Krugman, Krauthammer"- you get the picture. . .

  • FlipYrWhig on November 17, 2011 7:24 PM:

    Maybe Westen gets published because there's an audience that laps it up because it flatters their preconceived notions of What Obama Did Badly. They like to talk about "narrative" and "framing because they themselves are pretty good at writing. They don't like to talk about the ugly and inescapable uncooperativeness of all Republicans and a goodly number of Democrats, because they think persuasive rhetoric is what is required both to win arguments and to make policy. If only. It isn't. It's a fantasy. Let's get over it.

  • sacip on November 17, 2011 7:55 PM:

    Enough with the Obama apologist rhetoric! You can be a committed progressive who voted for the guy (& likely will again) and still think he's been a timid, inexperienced President who's only recently realized what it takes to succeed in a relentlessly hostile political environment. Steve, you're sounding as thin-skinned as Obama himself! Oh wait, was I being too harsh?? Never mind.

  • NRG on November 17, 2011 8:02 PM:

    "They don't like to talk about the ugly and inescapable uncooperativeness of all Republicans and a goodly number of Democrats, because they think persuasive rhetoric is what is required both to win arguments and to make policy."

    Rather, I'd say they think that persuasive rhetoric is a necessary condition of actually challenging the stultifying status quo. Sadly, President Obama has been consistently reluctant to even go so far as providing rhetoric, let alone actually trying to achieve genuinely liberal policy goals. Or do you prefer quietly bargaining away the public option behind closed doors to openly and publicly championing that superior policy?

    At many junctions, the President has chosen to quietly and meekly compromise in advance of even making the case for the preferable policy solution. That is what Westen is objecting to. That is what has disillusioned millions of American liberals. That failure to even try is one of the factors that has driven tens of thousands of liberals outside the political system and into the streets.

  • JohnN on November 17, 2011 8:07 PM:

    So, I read some of the links cited in the OP. Apparently the "fact" that Westen gets wrong is he doesn't agree that Obama did all he could. He thinks Obama could have pushed harder and negotiated better. And, that, according to Washington establishment types is just not "a fact."

    And as for this business of "narrative" and "framing" - Westen didn't make that up - it's a standard part of many rhetorical theories and analysis of debates, campaigns and so on. You want to say it is exaggerated, ok, but to act all surprised at this "innovation" is absurd.

    I see what is going on here. Establishment "liberals" are clinging to the idea that Obama did everything he could have done and insist that any left-wing criticism of him is just irresponsible whining from people who don't understand the sophisticated knowledge that those in the village do.

  • emjayay on November 17, 2011 8:43 PM:

    All this carping about Westen (maybe) not getting some fact quite right about Obama or about Reagan's rhetorical skills or whatever is beside the point and a waste of your and our time. It doesn't matter what Reagan was or wasn't, or if Obama made an excellent case for some policy at one point or not.

    Most people today know little about politics or anything else for that matter. They have a picture in their head based on spin and advertising and Fox News and soundbites etc. that fits their preconceived notions and basic value structure or not. It's not just Westen but also many others who have pointed out in various ways that Obama has failed to frame issues simply and appear to act in a way (steadfast and adamant and clear) many people see as proper to his daddy/president role.

    Maybe he is beginning to figure out that to accomplish the maximum in his role (and that it is a role) he has to do more than being the smartest most articulate most expert most reasonable possible facilitator in chief.

    Not that he hasn't accomplished a lot in a very difficult situation anyway.

  • superfly on November 17, 2011 9:52 PM:

    Swing and miss, Steve.

    He dealt the public option away, the NYT story and later confirmation by the author, David Kirkpatrick, Daschle's admission, in conjunction with the whole Senate Finance committee kabuki (look at what they do, not what they say), you and Bernstein look silly (to put it kindly) claiming it didn't happen.

  • Wally on November 17, 2011 10:15 PM:

    Is it possible Obama has done both?

    A) Accomplish an enormous amount by successfully working with Congress or using executive action to pass liberal ideas into law (which record few other Presidents have matched). E.g. Lilly Ledbetter, START II, Libya, withdrawal from Iraq, getting Euros not to hate us, DADT, GHG regulation, new CAFE standards, a relatively big stimulus, rescue 100s of 1000s of jobs at GM and Chrysler, Financial Reform legislation, ACA.

    B) Not use the bully pulpit well to frame issues and policies and to push back publicly on Republican nihilists.

    Personally, I think Ploufe and Emmanual sold him a bill of goods on trying to be the unifying, reasonable adult. Why in the world would Republicans let him do that? Now that he is being more partisan, they are laying off a bit.

  • chi res on November 17, 2011 10:32 PM:

    You can be a committed progressive who voted for the guy (& likely will again) and still think he's been a timid, inexperienced President

    Sure, it's a free country, you can THINK that all you want. Tea Partiers think and say all kinds of shit about Obama. Your unsupported opinion is just as valuable as their's.

    Just keep believin' those emails.

  • JohnN on November 18, 2011 12:02 AM:

    Right back at ya, Chi res, right back at ya.

    That you cannot tell the difference between the Tea Party and those who will vote for Obama but regret his poor leadership skills says it all.

  • Cha on November 18, 2011 12:54 AM:

    Thanks Steve for pointing out factually what an insipid hack Drew Westen is.

    As for these guys.."But Obama has plenty of high-profile, compelling liberal detractors ó Paul Krugman, Glenn Greenwald, Robert Reich, Bob Kuttner, Keith Olbermann, et al ó whose criticisms are grounded in fact. Westenís are not." I don't see them grounded in fact a lot of the times at all. Like someone said upthread ..there's big money in the anti-Obama niche from the left. It doesn't have to be grounded in fact..just sneering inuendo and that's enough for the suckers who fall for it. Example of them crawling all over this thread..cause you had the audacity to call out their hero, Drew Westen, Disingenuous Whiner Extraodinaire.

    A psychology professor? Really? Does he discourage lying in others but it's okay for him because it's for money?


  • tko on November 18, 2011 2:43 AM:

    On that public option deal with the White House, I still believe there was a deal regardless of your claims, Steve.

  • Steve M. on November 18, 2011 7:09 AM:

    Well, it's hopeless, but here goes -- I had the year correct in the comment above. So there was a plummet.

    I hate comments systems that don't allow corrections.

  • chi res on November 18, 2011 10:01 AM:

    That you cannot tell the difference between the Tea Party and those who will vote for Obama but regret his poor leadership skills says it all.

    You're so right. It says the fringes are meeting up on the far side.

    And, btw, only an idiot would plan to vote for Obama, but spend the year before the election badmouthing him. You might as well stay home on election day, because you've effectively cancelled out your own vote several times over.

  • Another Steve on November 18, 2011 11:34 AM:

    The New York Times loves Westen because he's what liberals sound like when they think like Republicans. He, like the Hamsherites, lives in the same kind of alternate factual reality they do, one where the only "facts" they acknowledge are the ones generated by their guts, from an overall narrative they've constructed to sustain their overarching sense of grievance.

    Truthiness. It's not just for Republicans.

  • Bullsmith on November 18, 2011 1:36 PM:

    Chi

    Your argument that speaking your mind is an assault on Democracy and that true patriots should shut up if they can't applaud is really a perfect example of why the Democrats have happily morphed into what used to be Republicans.

    Obama didn't have to lift a finger to let the Bush tax cuts expire, instead he picked up his pen and extended them. The appearance of fraudulent actions in the MBS bubble were blatantly apparent, investigations into Wall Street's misdeeds should've been automatic. Again, the Obama administration had to make a clear decision to turn a blind eye to any potential crime and let everyone walk. After the S+L fiasco, hundreds of bankers were prosecuted. This time they weren't even investigated, despite massive public outrage.

    To say Obama has done his best to deliver the 'change' he chose to campaign on is willful self-deception. He has been willing to sacrifice his own standing to protect what we now call the 1%, that's simply evident to anyone who isn't blinded by partisanship, left or right.

    But sure, what's wrong with America is that Obama voters aren't enthusiastic enough about the fantastic job he's done. Right.

  • chi res on November 18, 2011 3:16 PM:

    Your argument that speaking your mind is an assault on Democracy and that true patriots should shut up if they can't applaud

    Wow. That was my argument? Don't remember wrting anything like that.

    Is english your second language, by any chance? You seem to have difficulty reading simple words.

    But you apparently have no problem determining what is "simply evident" to everyone else. Are you psychic?

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