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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bigmouth Strikes Again

by dday

Betsy McCaughey has popped up before this year, claiming that the stimulus package included funding for comparative effectiveness research, which would "have the government essentially dictate treatments." It played into the worst fears, stoked for years by conservatives, of the government running health care and "getting between you and your doctor," unlike the great system we have now, where an insurance company bureaucrat does that. It's the same strategy as trying to get Americans to fear the Canadian health care system, even though the opposite is closer to reality.

It must be fun to be McCaughey, as her entire job appears to be misreading Congressional legislation and writing columns about it. This is what she did in 1994, writing the seminal piece "No Exit" in The New Republic, filled with distortions about the Clinton health care plan, that set the conventional wisdom against it. She's like an inverse I.F. Stone, ferreting out government malfeasance where none exists. The difference, of course, is that McCaughey is funded by powerful interests: she sits on the board of directors of a medical device company, has received stock options from that same company, and is part of a think tank funded by pharmaceuticals. So she's well-compensated for her deliberate misreadings.

The most recent installment, playing out over a number of days, is her contention that the House health care bill "would make it mandatory — absolutely require — that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner." Once again, she plays into the usual conservative tropes with false attacks about government taking control of your life.

And these claims get the standard fact-check treatment, and reporters try to pin her down, and McCaughey says things like "it doesn't say that in so many words, but it would allow for it to happen in the future," and eventhe President has to go ahead and rebut this in a town hall:

Q I have heard lots of rumors going around about this new plan, and I hope that the people that are going to vote on this is going to read every single page there. I have been told there is a clause in there that everyone that's Medicare age will be visited and told to decide how they wish to die. This bothers me greatly and I'd like for you to promise me that this is not in this bill.

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I guarantee you, first of all, we just don't have enough government workers to send to talk to everybody, to find out how they want to die.

I think that the only thing that may have been proposed in some of the bills -- and I actually think this is a good thing -- is that it makes it easier for people to fill out a living will.

Now, Mary, you may be familiar with the principle behind a living will, but it basically is something that my grandmother -- who, you may have heard, recently passed away -- it gave her some control ahead of time, so that she could say, for example, if she had a terminal illness, did she want extraordinary measures even if, for example, her brain waves were no longer functioning; or did she want just to be left alone. That gives her some decision-making power over the process.

The problem is right now most of us don't give direction to our family members and so when we get really badly sick, sadly enough, nobody is there to make the decisions. And then the doctor, who doesn't know what you might have preferred, they're making decisions, in consultation with your kids or your grandkids, and nobody knows what you would have preferred.

So I think the idea there is to simply make sure that a living will process is easier for people -- it doesn't require you to hire a lawyer or to take up a lot of time. But everything is going to be up to you. And if you don't want to fill out a living will, you don't have to. But it's actually a useful tool I think for a lot of families to make sure that if, heaven forbid, you contract a terminal illness, that you are somebody who is able to control this process in a dignified way that is true to your faith and true to how you think that end-of-life process should proceed.

You don't want somebody else making those decisions for you. So I actually think it's a good idea to have a living will. I'd encourage everybody to get one. I have one. Michelle has one. And we hope we don't have to use it for a long time, but I think it's something that is sensible.

But, Mary, I just want to be clear: Nobody is going to be knocking on your door; nobody is going to be telling you you've got to fill one out. And certainly nobody is going to be forcing you to make a set of decisions on end-of-life care based on some bureaucratic law in Washington.

And that's that! Whew, we dodged a bullet there!

Except House Republicans will continue to pronounce that Obama wants to kill old people. And not just the rank and file, but the Minority Leader. And Democrats still get the cards and letters about how that nice Ms. McCaughey tells them that government agents will descend on their house with some rope and a pillow good enough for suffocatin':

But Representative G. K. Butterfield, Democrat of North Carolina, said he heard many expressions of concern from constituents when he answered telephone calls to his office on Tuesday.

“The longer we wait to vote,” Mr. Butterfield said, “the more opportunity our opponents have to put out false messages. Seniors fear they will lose Medicare. They worry they will have to discuss plans for end-of-life care every five years.” [...]

The House Republican leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, said, “This provision may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia.”

Representative Robert E. Andrews, Democrat of New Jersey, said, “I have met seniors who think their Medicare will be taken away, which is false.”

Not that some people even know that Medicare is a government program anymore.

So this is the game. McCaughey gets on conservative media, pretends to be an expert about all things health care, and just makes shit up about the bill. This lays a near-impossible trap for anyone who cares about honesty - leave the claims alone and watch them fester, or debunk them and give them even more attention. If you're Politico, and your core mission is to start controversy, you can achieve a two-fer by printing headlines like "Will proposal promote euthanasia? and debunking the story deeper inside the article.

Democrats had this game figured out by 1995.

And yet it persists. Because the bullshit flies so fast that tamping it down is just an impossibility. John Thune yesterday went ahead and claimed that "most Americans" would pay 50 cents of every dollar in taxes under the health care bill. You can blame corporate media for failing to get out in front of the nonsense, but you're not going to get Fred Thompson's radio show, which is where this latest McCaughey smear originated, to value the truth.

The strategy of delay from those who want to kill the health care plan relies on a steady stream of bullshit from all areas of the conservative noise machine. Some of this opposition gets privileged by the media, some of it rebutted. But it's all "out there." And it has a cumulative effect, piece by piece, until the plan no longer seems worth doing (which, if it's the Senate Finance Committee version, might be true). You have politicians literally arguing for speed in the process because they don't want their opponents to have time to mainline more lies into the media bloodstream.

McCaughey won't go away. And no matter how discredited Republicans get, their ability to find outlets for their bullshit will probably only grow. All of it goes back to a central argument about the nature of government, an argument that Democrats all too often don't want to have. If the majority of people had any belief that government could act as a positive force in people's lives, the barrage of lies would not matter nearly so much. If you never make that argument, you leave the field to people like Betsy McCaughey.