Health Care Promises, Predictions, and Propaganda

Conservative pundits say they’re worried about liberal promises about the historic health care bill. They should think again, writes Eric Alterman.

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President Barack Obama signs the health care reform bill, Tuesday, March 23, 2010, in the East Room of the White House. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama signs the health care reform bill, Tuesday, March 23, 2010, in the East Room of the White House. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

Following the passage of President Barack Obama’s historic health care reform this week The New York Times’ conservative pundit Ross Douthat argues that "liberals have made a lot of predictions about what its passage will mean for America—for our health care system and our health, our economy and our long-term solvency. It will be interesting, to put it mildly, to see if they end up coming true." Per usual, the man has a point. Will health care save money? Will it save lives? Will it cut the deficit? "Right now, these assumptions are hotly contested between left and right," Douthat accurately assumes. "Evaluating these predictions is like groping in the dark. But passing the bill will shed some light on them," and "by 2018 we’ll find out who’s right."

His colleague, David Brooks, also a conservative, predicts its failure. "This legislation," he writes, speaking of deficits, "was supposed to end that asphyxiating growth, which will crowd out investments in innovation, education and everything else. It will not." Brooks admits that any prediction regarding the bill is dicey. "Nobody knows how this bill will work out. It is an undertaking exponentially more complex than the Iraq war…"

Well, if that’s the case, then conservatives really should think twice about making predictions. The Wall Street Journal editors argue that despite the more than 200 Republican amendments accepted by the majority before the bill was finally passed, "this hour of liberal political victory is a good time to adapt the ‘Pottery Barn’ rule that Colin Powell once invoked on Iraq: You break it, you own it."

It’s funny that these conservatives keep throwing around the metaphor of Iraq given their famous inability to get any of their predictions right about that war. (The Journal editors, rather funnily, also complain about the "complicity of America’s biggest health-care lobbies, including Big Pharma, the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, the Federation of American Hospitals, the Business Roundtable and such individual companies as Wal-Mart" in the bill, and worry that these poor souls may have "made themselves more vulnerable to the gilded clutches of the political class.")

My CAP colleague Matt Yglesias also noticed something funny by Bill Kristol in the current issue of The Weekly Standard. Kristol, in an editorial, sought to reformulate the popular conservative "Waterloo" metaphor for the health care bill to cast Obama not as Napoleon at Waterloo—pace Jim DeMint, itself a problematic metaphor—but as Louis Napoleon, emperor of France from 1851 to 1871 and a no less screwy character from a historical standpoint. But Kristol’s reformulation somehow leads him to argue that like France way back when, we have a ghostly version of the liberalism of the 1960s, led by a man who is only a caricature of the vigorous if often mistaken liberals who once sought to reshape the nation."

Yet as Yglesias points out, if this ghostly representation of a decidedly lethargic retread of ’60s liberalism managed to kick conservative butt in this fight, well, what in the world does Kristol think he’s arguing? (And doesn’t the dude remember that he’s an Iraq expert and not a health care expert?)

Speaking of what the great Dr. John calls "some serious confusementalism" in political analysis, blogger John Holbo found in this analysis by National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg something worthy of a "George-Orwell-prize-meets-Bulwer-Lytton type literary award," should one ever be awarded. Goldberg writes: "[T]his legislation is a superconducting super collider of culture-war conflagrations…The government has surged over the breakwater and is now going to flood the nooks and crannies of American life."

To be fair, these are pretty mild predictions compared to the utopia we were promised by conservatives once a warning shot or two was fired to scare the Iraqis into liberal democracy. And they are also pretty mild compared to the past year of predictions conservatives have been throwing around regarding the results of passing this health care legislation. It may be too early, for instance, to tell if the legislation is going to murder your grandparents as Sarah Palin, among many others, have promised.

But it sure does not appear to be conforming to James Cramer’s promise that "Obamacare will topple the stock market." (The Dow rose triple digits on the day Obama signed the bill.) No big deal for Cramer, though, who specializes in telling his viewers to buy stocks about to disappear from the face of the earth. But going through Media Matters files, one finds a series of right-wing predictions, one wilder than the next as the legislation approaches.

  • Sean Hannity: "If we get nationalized health care, it’s over; this is socialism."
  • Rush Limbaugh: Democrats will regulate "every aspect of our lives."
  • Right-wing radio host Neal Boortz tweeted that "Nancy Pelosi will be grinning and laughing" following the health care vote, which "will do more damage than 9/11."
  • Conservative blogger and CNN contributor Erick Erickson bemoaned that "Democrats voted to put people in jail who have no insurance, raise the costs of health care, destroy the federal government’s bond rating, [and] keep unemployment high."
  • Libertarian blogger Megan McArdle warned that "we wake up in a different political world" following the health care vote. She lamented, "Are we now in a world where there is absolutely no recourse to the tyranny of the majority?"

It’s a little bit funny, therefore, that Douthat, Brooks, and company are so concerned about the likelihood that Congressional Budget Office projections might not turn out exactly as predicted or that the new plan won’t "solve" the deficit problem. The problem with the health care debate is not merely the cost of the legislation itself, which, on occasion, had to be crafted to address some of this foolishness, but in the false myths that will likely outlive its passage regardless of what the bill actually contains. Recent research demonstrates "de facto death panels" will travel the land, at least in the minds of gullible conservatives who have the bad luck to believe the purposefully misleading propaganda their leaders so peddle so irresponsibly. That can only mean that fewer people will get the care they need because they fear "government health care."

But based on the nonsense conservatives spouted about the bill you’d almost believe they wanted it that way.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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