The Magazine

Low Voltage

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Last week, National Journal reporter Major Garrett provided an interesting explanation for the White House’s obsession with promoting a dubious statistic on the alleged “pay gap” between men and women. The White House has repeatedly claimed that women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. Such “war on women” rhetoric has no doubt proved inspiring to many single women, the Democrats’ most crucial voting bloc. (Republicans still enjoy an advantage among married women.) 

However, as has been repeatedly pointed out, once you control for a number of confounding factors in the data, including the degree to which women drop in and out of the workforce to attend to marital and parental duties, the pay gap all but evaporates. Even the usually credulous D.C. press corps was scratching their heads over the White House’s misleading rhetoric. The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus—not exactly the face of conservative opposition to Obama—called the White House’s use of the stat “revolting.” But as Garrett explains, the Obama administration deliberately sought to create controversy:

[The White House was] desperate to inject the issue into the political bloodstream and amplify otherwise doomed Senate Democratic efforts to make it easier for women to sue and win damages for workplace pay differences. The controversy that played out on front pages, social media, TV, and radio did just that. 

This is the White House theory of “Stray Voltage.” It is the brainchild of former White House Senior Adviser David Plouffe, whose methods loom large long after his departure. The theory goes like this: Controversy sparks attention, attention provokes conversation, and conversation embeds previously unknown or marginalized ideas in the public consciousness. This happens, Plouffe theorizes, even when—and sometimes especially when—the White House appears defensive, besieged, or off-guard.

While the moniker “stray voltage” may make the concept sound exciting to political reporters, let’s call this what it is: agitprop to advance an agenda. If the “pay gap” was a previously unknown or marginalized idea, that’s because it deserves to be marginalized. In this regard, we’re sure that “if you like your health insurance plan, you can keep your health insurance plan” was just another example of “stray voltage.” Can you blame the president? How else was he supposed to convince people a federal takeover of health care shouldn’t remain a marginalized idea? 

Presidential adviser Dan Pfeiffer insists the “theory ascribed to us is not ours (or Plouffe’s) and wasn’t applied to this debate,” despite Garrett citing “a top White House adviser” as a source in his story. If the Obama administration frequently appears “defensive, besieged, or off-guard,” maybe Occam’s razor is a better concept than “stray voltage” for understanding why the leader of the free world is ignorant of the facts underlying his own policies and rhetoric.

But if some in the White House think that being portrayed as mendacious is preferable to being seen as incompetent, The Scrapbook encourages them to go ahead and make that argument. With that much stray voltage flying around, it’s only a matter of time before voters start to feel shocked, and burned.

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