A petty rant: Republicans are the real lying liars on Obamacare

Noble lies have defined the Obamacare fight, but let's get real -- most are from conservatives trying to kill it

Published November 7, 2013 12:43PM (EST)

Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Ben Carson                              (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Ben Carson (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

I fully accept that it's a fallacy of relevance to respond to charges of wrongdoing by noting that others have done worse.

But I'm also feeling unusually petty at the moment, so let's proceed in that vein for fun.

Let's stipulate that when President Obama first said "if you like your plan, you can keep your plan," he was telling a "noble lie" in the Platonic sense of the term. I'm not sure I buy that. I think it was probably more a failure to think through the dangers of being so categorical in a situation where even small margins amount to millions of people.

But let's say it was a sinister deception undertaken by a man who believed he had to lie for the greater good. Why was he being so defensive?

Part of it can be attributed to the Democrats' elephantine memory of Bill Clinton's failed attempt to overhaul the healthcare system. It turns out that the biggest obstacle facing anyone trying to reform the healthcare system is that you can't do it without creating some amount of disruption, and most people in the country have insurance they're pretty happy with. So Obama wanted to minimize not just the disruption but the fear of disruption itself. A fair critique of Obamacare is that it leaves too many of the worst parts of the old system in place, but that's no consolation if you took Obama at his word.

Another part of the story, though, is that he was responding to an incredible amount of bullshit.

And this is where I want to be petty.

Noble lies have in many ways defined the debate over the Affordable Care Act, but the vast majority of them have been lies conservatives told in a failed effort to nix reform. Death panels are the most famous such lie. Another is that Obamacare is destroying the economy, creating a part-time labor pandemic and a major obstacle to recovery from the great recession. A third is that it will blow up the debt.

A fourth, also still with us, is that Obamacare is a stalking horse for socialized healthcare.

That's from a Senate Finance Committee hearing yesterday.

Let's give Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the benefit of the doubt and assume that by "socialized medicine" he meant single-payer insurance and not a genuinely socialized healthcare system where the government runs the hospitals, and employs the doctors and so on.

In either case, though, the subtext is that Obamacare is a feint, and that the real end game is one where everyone gives up their existing private health insurance and the government replaces it with something like Medicare. Plenty of conservatives just skip the part where Obamacare is a stepping stone to single payer and just call the program socialism, full stop.

Personally, I think that kind of "socialism" would be a pretty good idea. But it is emphatically not what Obamacare is.

"If you like your plan, you can keep it" was in its own bungled way an answer to this kind of sophistry.

If you imagine a spectrum between the pre-Obamacare status quo, and the kind of job-destroying "socialism" that the rest of the first world somehow endures, Obamacare is probably about 80 or 90 percent of the way toward the former.

When the final numbers are in, and next year's numbers, and the numbers the year after that, Obama's claim will look much closer to the truth than the socialism accusation, but reporters won't pepper Republican press secretaries with questions about why their bosses warned of a coming dystopia that never actually came. Just like the right's been given a complete pass for feigning concern for people whose coverage has been canceled, when their own reform proposals are an order of magnitude more disruptive.

This raises an interesting philosophical question about the moral differences between lies told in the service of creating something, lies told in the service of trying (but failing) to prevent it, and lies told in support of alternatives that will never come to pass. It also bears mention that people are experiencing and reacting to the real consequences of Obamacare, and it's natural that there's more clamor about the law itself than about the false but abstract claims opponents have made about it.

But as far as political credibility is concerned the distinction is moot. These are all just lies, even if each is rooted in the fact that people have different and contentious views of the greater good.

Lying is bad. People shouldn't lie. But on this score, just ask yourself whose descriptions of Obamacare were closer to reality: Obama's or the Republican Party's? It isn't even a close call.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at bbeutler@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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