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President Obama said once again last week that Syria’s “use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer.”
The president had played this game many times before. “I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game-changer,” he said in March, in one of his administration’s many repetitions of the term.
But what game does Obama propose to change? “By game-changer,” ABC News’ Jonathan Karl asked him on Tuesday, “do you mean U.S. military action?”
The coach was not about to share his playbook. “By game-changer, I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options,” he volleyed.
Is it too late in the game to challenge Obama’s use of this sports metaphor to respond to Syria? The very real possibility that the Bashar al-Assad regime is about to use nerve agents to kill tens of thousands of people is not a “game.”
“Game-changer” — which has made its way from sports to business to politics and now to diplomacy — has replaced the “red line,” a term more easily understood by rogue regimes thinking of defying the United States. Game-change is a lazy reference, but that’s only part of the problem.
The term is one data point in the larger trend toward viewing government as a sporting contest, a series of games won and lost. In the perpetual battle to put a “W” in the column of the R’s (in the red jerseys) or the D’s (in blue), the sports talk helps the political class to forget that there are real human consequences to their games.
Obama and others in his administration have used the term in reference to food marketing standards (“truly a game-changer,” said the first lady), the JOBS Act (“a potential game-changer,” said the president), AmeriCorps, childhood-obesity prevention, Title IX, digital tutors, natural gas from shale, the Internet, the Independent Medicare Advisory Council, conversations about immigration, rail improvements, cyberspace research, and foreign-aid standards.
So, when the president warns Syria that chemical weapons are a “game-changer,” is Assad’s regime to assume he is using the term in the childhood-obesity sense or the Medicare sense?
“Game-changer” arrived in politics during the Bush administration, becoming a clichÈ in 2008 with John McCain’s “game-changing” nomination of Sarah Palin as his running mate, and was recounted in the book and movie “Game Change.” (A previous political book by one of the “Game Change” co-authors was titled “The Way to Win.”)
Now it is ubiquitous, applied by politicians and journalists to the NBA’s Jason Collins, Michael Jackson’s medical records, Sen. Marco Rubio, U.S. military presence in Asia, the Boston Marathon bombing, health care tax credits, over-the-counter birth control, AIDS research and just about everything else. Search in Nexis for uses of “game-changer” over the last month and you are told “This search has been interrupted because it will return more than 3,000 results.”
Leading the pack in the race to treat governing as sport is Politico, publisher of the daily Playbook. In recent weeks, the outlet and people it has quoted have described the following as game-changers: Karl Rove’s data project, public financing of elections, the fight over the Keystone pipeline, consumer regulations, the Sandy Hook shooting, entitlement-program cuts, renewable energy, personal data disclosure, a conservative documentary, the White House chief of staff, Mitt Romney’s 47 percent video, research tax credits, Fox News, universal preschool, and a decision by Politico’s publisher to sell off his television assets.
In the current fight over budget cuts, Washington seems to be suffering a late onset of March Madness. Journalists provide color commentary while Democrats and Republicans compete on the field. Some headlines from recent weeks:
“Sequestration: GOP wins.”
“Why Republicans won’t win a sequester showdown.”
“The sequester: A long-term win for the GOP.”
“Republicans are losing the sequestration battle.”
“Republicans win a round.”
“What Republicans have to lose in the sequestration.”
“The Democrats have lost on sequestration.”
“GOP losing sequester blame game.”
Missing from all of this color commentary? The real “losers” in the budget-cut fights: thousands of cancer patients turned away from clinics that could no longer pay for their treatments; the seniors and the disabled going hungry because their Meals on Wheels have been discontinued; the parents of preschoolers booted out of the Head Start program.
For them, and for the people of Syria awaiting a sarin gas attack from the sky, what happens in Washington isn’t an athletic contest. Let’s level the playing field for them, and put a red line around the whole notion that governing is a game.
DANA MILBANK is a political reporter for The Washington Post and has authored two books on national political campaigns and the national political parties.