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A HEALTH CARE DEBATE OUTTA KAFKA! Simon and Henneberger can’t quite explain the rules of our cock-eyed discourse: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 26, 2009

Frankly, we were (largely) wrong: Doggone it! We hate it any time Frank Rich isn’t wrong—which isn’t all that often, of course. That said, fair is fair—and we were (largely) wrong in the first complaint we lodged in our post about Rich on Monday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/24/09). Rich did not invert the order of the quotes he used from David Gregory and Tom Coburn. In our view, Rich’s paraphrase was a bit generous to his own preferred narrative; Coburn hadn’t exactly been asked “if he was troubled by current threats of ‘violence against the government.’ ” But Gregory did use the term “violence against the government” in both his questions to Coburn, not just in his follow-up:

GREGORY (8/16/09): But let's talk about the tone of the debate. There have been death threats against members of Congress. There are Nazi references to members of Congress and to the president. Here are some of the images—the president being called a Nazi. His reform effort being called "Nazi-like”—referring to Nazi Germany, members of Congress being called the same.

And then there was this image this week outside of Portsmouth, New Hampshire—a town hall event that the president had. This man, with a gun strapped to his leg, held that sign—"It is time to water the tree of liberty." It was a reference to that famous Thomas Jefferson quote, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." That has become a motto for violence against the government.

Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber had that very quote on his shirt the day of the bombing of the Murrah Building when 168 people were killed. Senator Coburn, you are from Oklahoma. When this element comes out in larger numbers because of this debate, what troubles you about that?

COBURN: Well, I'm troubled any time when we stop having confidence in our government, but we've earned it. You know, this debate isn't about health care. Health care is the symptom. The debate is an uncontrolled federal government that's going to run 50 percent of everything we are spending this year. We are borrowing from the next generation—

GREGORY: Let me stop you there—I'm talking about the tone. I am talking about violence against the government. That's what this is—

COBURN: The tone is based on fear of loss of control of their own government. What is the genesis behind people going to such extreme statements? What is it? We have lost the confidence, to a certain degree, and it's much worse than when Tom [Daschle] was the leader of the Senate. We have raised the question of whether or not we are legitimately thinking about the American people and their long-term best interest. And that's the question.

The mail volume of all the senators didn't go up based on the health care debate. The mail volume went up when we started spending away our future indiscriminately. And that's not Republican or Democrat. That has been a problem for years, but it's exacerbated now that we are in the kind of financial situation and economic situation.

For our money, Gregory’s question was stranger than Coburn’s answer—although our answer would have been different. (Rich forgot to quote Coburn referring to “such extreme statements.”) At the time Gregory asked these questions, only one person had appeared at an Obama event with a gun; there had been no “violence against the government;” nor had there really been any “threats.” But we missed the first use of that quoted phrase. We hate it any time Rich isn’t wrong. But in this case, he wasn’t.
We stand by our larger assessment. We know of no one who has more thumbs on more scales than Rich does in his typical column. And no: People aren’t reading Ronald Kessler’s new book for the reason Rich imagined this day.

One last point: Several Republicans have defended the “guns of August” in ways which are massively more ridiculous than anything Coburn said that day. Rich has a bit of a jones for Coburn. Appearing on Hardball, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), mentioned in passing, was about a thousand times worse.

Frankly, we were largely wrong. We hate it when Rich isn’t.

How disinformation rules your world/Canadian health care edition: Be sure to read today’s New York Times editorial, “World’s Best Health Care.” In ways which are both good and bad, the editorial helps us understand how conservative disinformation can rule our political world.

At issue is the ubiquitous sound-bite, “The United States has the world’s best health care.” Also at issue: The ubiquitous corollaries to this claim, in which Americans are handed horror tales about Canadian health care. (Or Swedish. Or British. Or French.)

The editorial discusses a study comparing American health care with that found in other nations. Uh-oh! According to the editors, this study undermines that ubiquitous claim: American health care is the best in the world!

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (8/26/09): Critics of President Obama’s push for health care reform have been whipping up fear that proposed changes will destroy our “world’s best” medical system and make it like supposedly inferior systems elsewhere.

The emptiness of those claims became apparent recently when researchers from the Urban Institute released a report analyzing studies that have compared the clinical effectiveness and quality of care in the United States with the care dispensed in other advanced nations. They found a mixed bag, with the United States doing better in some areas, like cancer care, and worse in others, like preventing deaths from treatable and preventable conditions.

The bottom line was unmistakable. The analysts found no support for the claim routinely made by politicians that American health care is the best in the world and no hard evidence of any particular area in which American health care is truly exceptional.

Embarrassingly, even the much-maligned Canadian system outstrips that of the United States, according to the editors. “Contrary to what one hears in political discourse, the bulk of the research comparing the United States and Canada found a higher quality of care in our northern neighbor,” the editors write. “Of 10 studies comparing the care given to a broad range of patients suffering from a diverse group of ailments, five favored Canada, three yielded mixed results, and only two favored the United States.”

This raises a pair of obvious questions, questions we will continue exploring in our series below. If our health care isn’t the best in the world, why do we constantly hear that it is? Equally important: Why hasn’t the “liberal” world found ways to rebut this very powerful claim?

We’ll be discussing those questions for the next several weeks. Two reactions to this editorial:

First: Remember again what happened last month when a no-name Arizona state legislator threw foreign health-care horror stories at liberal broadcaster Ed Schultz. Schultz had no idea how to respond; he vowed he would take a field trip to Canada to learn how that system works (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/24/09). Fifteen years after the defeat of the Clinton health plan, this is still the way the career liberal world works. In other segments of our society, angry interest groups would sue people like Schultz, charging mis- or malfeasance.

The endlessly dozing “liberal” world has tolerated this sort of thing for decades. We love to call the other side dumb. Perhaps we should look in our mirrors.

Second: Note a Thoroughly Standard Missing Element in this morning’s editorial.

The editors deserve our praise for calling attention to this new study. They do a good job of highlighting, then undermining, that ubiquitous, powerful sound-bite. Given what we endlessly hear about the horror of Canadian health care, the new study is quite striking. But that study is much more striking because of a highly relevant point the editors chose to leave out:

Total spending on health care, per person, 2007:
United States: $7290
Canada: $3895

Canada is actually one of the biggest-spenders on the OECD’s list of developed nations. (Average spending in 2007: $2964 per person.) And yet, our northern neighbor spent just 53 percent as much as we spent in 2007, per person. But good grief! Despite our massive over-spending, the U.S. finished behind Canada in those ten studies comparing care, according to the editors.

It’s absurd to omit these spending data when we discuss that famous sound-bite. American health care is the best in the world? We have the world’s best medical system? The spending data are obviously relevant, and yet they are routinely omitted, as in today’s editorial. The editors did an unusually good job—and still left out half the story.

Editors! Show us the money!

But that’s the way we liberals argue, despite our self-admitted brilliance. Even in the rare case where we get it right, we tend to omit half the tale. Why does bogus conservative spin tend to rule our political world? Remember what Schultz told that no-name hack. And remember today’s editorial.

This is all happening fifteen years after our last health reform defeat! If we want to name-call people as dumb, why don’t we look in our mirrors?

Special report: Why do we lose?

PART 2: A HEALTH CARE DEBATE OUTTA KAFKA: Sometimes, we liberals imagine a better, simpler simpler world.

In this world, a sane public discourse proceeds apace, on terms which are blatantly rational. In this world, our side voices remarkably clear, simple goals. For that reason, no one can defeat the things we’ve proposed by inventing “ridiculous and blatant falsehoods,” which crazily turn the debate. In this vastly better world, no one can start yelling “death panel” claims. No one can say that we have the world’s best health care. No one can claim that our White House candidate said he invented the Internet.

At the present time, of course, that sane, serene world simply doesn’t exist. But we liberals never stop dreaming. We felt for a letter-writer in last Friday’s Post. Dear God! It sounded so simple!

LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (8/22/09): Want to implement a health insurance public option without ferocious (albeit minority) public opposition? As has been proposed in the past, just take the words “over 65” out of the Medicare legislation. Public-option opponents have expressed trust in Medicare, so how can they oppose opening it to everyone who wants and needs it?

A— F—
Kensington [Maryland]

The letter writer imagined a world where Democrats could make a proposal without provoking “ferocious public opposition.” She thought a narrow type of logic would make such ferocity grind to a halt. But then, liberals and Democrats often dream of such a world. Here was Melinda Henneberger, a perfectly decent person, dreaming on last Thursday’s Hardball:

HENNEBERGER (8/20/09): It’s pretty amazing how quickly things have changed, when only recently we thought, you know, this was going to be a really great year for the Democrats. But I am just so astonished, most of all, that this health care debate has gotten away from Obama the way it has. I mean, this should be his greatest moment. This should be a no-brainer!

I mean, as a cancer survivor, I can tell you that people in waiting rooms do not sit around bragging about their health care coverage and saying, boy, that’s something they sure don’t have to worry about. I mean, it’s nothing but complaints about coverage being dropped or, you know, something that’s not covered at all. Or they’ll allow $75 for your radiation.

And so he hasn’t made the moral argument. He didn’t start to make that until yesterday on this call with some on the religious left. And that’s the argument he really ought to have been making, I think, from the beginning, what a moral imperative this is. It certainly is a vindication for Hillary Clinton, when we said she could have sold it if only she had consulted with people a little more, if only she’d been a little more flexible. Now it looks like the same thing is happening all over again.

Henneberger was dreaming too! If only he’d made the moral argument! If only Obama had done that from the beginning, she dreamed, this same thing wouldn’t be happening all over again!

This should be a no-brainer, she said. As she said that, she dreamed a vast dream.

Sorry. It would be happening all over again if Obama had made that argument! Almost surely, the pseudo-conservative spin machine would have swatted away that moral imperative—and it would have swatted away the letter-writer’s narrow logic. At present, the pseudo-conservative spin machine has an almost endless ability to swat away liberal proposals. The letter-writer didn’t seem to know that. But then again, neither did Henneberger.

Last Tuesday, in an on-line discussion, two of Rick Perlstein’s readers had a clearer take on the current shape of our broken political culture. The reader from Derry acknowledged something: He doesn’t necessarily understand why we lose in the cock-eyed way we do. But he does know what always happens:

Boston, Mass.: Why do you suppose are the Democrats so bad at messaging and pushing back? I mean, the Republicans' way of using the same blunt talking points, repeating the same words over all interviews, is very effective. Are Democrats just really that much like a herd of cats? Or do they just not have someone to test out talking points...

Derry, N.H.: I thoroughly appreciate your article and its historical perspective on right-wing paranoia—both the way history is replaying itself and where it now differs. One critical aspect not covered, however, is what (if anything) can be done to counter such ridiculous and blatant falsehoods in what should be a patriotic dialog rather than a hysterical diatribe. As you noted, merely repeating the falsehoods and even branding them as such merely gives them more air time and greater credence with some. If you could suggest one way to take on this foolishness, what would it be?

Our side has been losing this way for decades! The pattern in our public debates is clear; it can’t be wished away with appeals to narrow logic or to uplifting moral imperatives. Here’s what happens, as the Derry man knows, in years when we don’t have Bush in the White House with approval ratings near 25 percent:

On the other side, “ridiculous and blatant falsehoods” will appear. On our side, we will show little sign of knowing how to react to these falsehoods. Al Gore said he invented the Internet! And not only that: European health care has failed everywhere it’s ever been tried!

Neither one of those statements is true. Each statement might be called a “blatant and ridiculous falsehood.” But so what? In 1999 and 2000, one of those unrebutted falsehoods cost you the White House, and gave you Iraq. (Liberals still refuse to discuss this.) The other falsehood is currently helping drive health reform down to defeat. And other fairly ludicrous claims are being used in our health care debate:

No one has actually read the bill! This is an utterly silly attack—and yet, it’s now ubiquitous, and it’s quite effective. John Conyers walked into this buzz saw a few weeks ago, and he skillfully said the wrong thing—as Democrats and liberals tend to do in the course of our endless defeats.

How silly can conservative objections be? Do you remember the stimulus package? Objections can get very silly—and yet, such objections prevail.

In January, Obama suggested reseeding the National Mall—and that was turned into a toxic suggestion, one which had to be stripped from the stimulus package. In the same way, living will consultation—sorry, “death panels”—will now be stripped from health bills. And yet, we liberals still dream of the zipless debate—of the claim so clear and pure that it can’t be routed in some bizarre fashion. As we dream these dreamers’ dreams, we show that we still don’t understand the shape of our current predicament.

Can we talk? In years when no GOP congressman has been discovered sleeping with boys, it’s easy to defeat our proposals! (There is no easier job on earth than that of the pseudo-con pundit.) Typically, we show few signs of understanding why that is. Henneberger puzzled about this strange matter just a bit later on Hardball:

HENNEBERGER: He [Obama] still has some time. And, you know, I have every confidence that he’ll close the deal [on health care reform, because at bottom that is what people want. And yet he does need to do what Roger [Simon] said. He can’t go out there with this vague, diffuse message, when the other side really does, once again, have just a few words: “Government takeover.” “Death panels.” We know what that is. And you listen to Obama for an hour, and you`re still not sure exactly what the take-away is, exactly what the bottom line is.

Understandably, Henneberger gnashed her teeth. The other side just has to say a few words: “Government takeover!” No, wait: “Death panels!” By way of contrast, our guy goes out there for an hour—and nobody knows what he wants! Earlier on the same Hardball program, Roger Simon had described a version of the same odd situation:

SIMON: The other side is very clear in what it’s saying. You know, “He’s Hitler!” “It’s death panels!” You know, “It’s socialism!” [Obama], on the other hand, has got to make a case where—first of all, he has to tell us what he wants. Is it co-ops? Is it a public option? Is he willing to trade both of those for the rest of the package?

Second, he has to tell us how he’s going to pay for it. Is he going to be like Max Baucus and want to tax benefits? Is he going to be like Nancy Pelosi and only tax people making over a million dollars a year? Is it going to be over $250,000 a year?

Thirdly, he`s going to have to tell us how far is he willing to go? Is he going to go with just 50 votes to get it through the Senate? Is he going to hold out for 60 votes? I mean, he`s really got to clarify what he wants.

Like Henneberger, Simon described a strange dual system. One side gets to yell objections—the more absurd the better. The other side is somehow required to make an impossibly complex presentation. One side is required to yell two words. The other side has to tick off long list of complex points.

To our ear, Simon and Henneberger were each describing a political system they can’t quite explain. One side gets to yell crazy things—and the other side is required to make intensely detailed presentations! And yet, the side which yells the crazy things is the side which constantly wins! It’s almost like a dream from Kafka—a dream our side can’t quite explain. Then too, we thought of a passage from Wittgenstein: “We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider’s web with our fingers.”

Our side tends to have a very hard time explaining that peculiar system—when we try to explain it at all. And yet, one thing is painfully clear: “It looks like the same thing is happening all over again,”as Henneberger said about the current drive for health reform. Indeed, we recently reread James Fallow’s famous and important Atlantic piece, “A Triumph of Misinformation,” about the way the Clinton health plan went down to defeat in 1994 (just click here). For all its fame, his famous piece could have been written today, about the latest such triumph we liberals have helped engineer.

TOMORROW—PART 3: The Fallows piece, then and now.