Rand Paul’s crazy word salad on Obamacare: A symbol of GOP's larger mess

GOP star’s evasions make him the perfect leader of a party afraid to tell voters what it really stands for

By Joan Walsh

Published June 2, 2014 4:46PM (EDT)

Rand Paul                  (AP/Stephan Savoia)
Rand Paul (AP/Stephan Savoia)

Sen. Rand Paul made national news this weekend when he refused to say precisely whether he wanted to repeal Kentucky’s version of the Affordable Care Act, Kynect, along with the federal act itself. He bobbed and weaved like his boy Mitch McConnell, and most people have left it at that: another scared Republican afraid to tell the voters what he really thinks about a program that’s helped many of them. Reporters are used to that. Nobody except liberals even criticize it anymore, sadly.

But I want to look at Paul’s entire ludicrous soliloquy on Obamacare, Kynect and healthcare generally, because it shows how fundamentally unserious he is about domestic policy. Or if he is serious, he’s seriously delusional. It was every bit the nonsensical word salad we are used to being served by Sarah Palin, but maybe it’s sexism: Paul is never called out on it or mocked the way the former Alaska governor was. He ought to be.

I’ve written before that “Paul is what you get when traditional and corrosive American nepotism meets the 21st century GOP echo chamber: a pampered princeling whose dumb ideas have never been challenged by reality.” Ron Paul's son has a tendency to look proud of himself whenever he shows a passing familiarity with facts and figures and ideas, even if he’s conflating or distorting them beyond any resemblance to reality. It’s on display in this interview with Kentucky reporters.

The junior senator from Kentucky starts out by acknowledging that Kynect gets a lot of praise, locally and nationally.

I think the real question that we have in Kentucky is people seem to be very much complimenting our exchange because of the functionality of it, but there are still the unknown questions or what's going to happen with so many new people.

OK. Let’s take a look at “what’s going to happen with so many new people.” Here Paul rolls out some brand-new GOP anti-ACA scare tactics. First: The rapid expansion of Medicaid, he claims, is costing jobs.

I mean it's basically about a 50 percent increase in Medicaid in one year. That's a dramatic shot to a system. And my question is what will happen to local hospitals. If you look at [Glasgow, Kentucky, hospital] TJ Samson laid off 50 people and they’re saying they can’t afford the huge burden of Medicaid.

Oops, stop right there. While the hospital’s CEO did in fact link the layoff of 49 staffers to Obamacare in April, days later the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services disputed that account. It said the hospital would take in hundreds of thousands of dollars more in Medicaid funding annually, because it's now being reimbursed for uninsured patients it used to treat without payment. Asked about the discrepancy, Paul just pointed to earlier reporting about the Samson CEO’s remarks and said: “All I know is what I read in the papers.”

So for President Rand Paul, the buck would presumably stop with the papers.

Then Paul raised the specter of folks getting their private health insurance subsidized under the Affordable Care Act, but with such high deductibles that they ultimately won’t be able to pay.

That’s gonna mean … you’re still just a non-payer, probably. And hospitals are going to have to figure out, we won’t know this for six months to a year, how many people who show up with subsidized insurance will actually be able to pay [their] deductible.

This could conceivably be a problem – actually, it was a big problem before the ACA – but Paul has no evidence the ACA made the problem worse. More likely it has helped some, because even with a high deductible plan, many preventive services are now provided without a co-pay. The point is, there's no evidence of such a problem yet; Paul is just throwing trash at Obamacare to see what will stick.  And there’s more:

How many of the new people on Medicaid, how many of those people may have actually had insurance before? Did they go from being a non-payer to being a government payer? Or did they maybe have insurance, but now they’re on Medicaid because it’s easier than having insurance?

Paul could probably find out the answers to these questions, with staff work and a little consultation with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, but he would never bother. After hearing all of this bad news, much of it invented, a local reporter asked the senator the obvious question:

With all those unknowns, do you think Kynect should be dismantled?

And here Paul joins McConnell and punts. Or lies, since it’s pretty sure from his answer he thinks Kynect should be dismantled.

You know I'm not sure — there's going to be … how we unravel or how we change things. I would rather —I always tell people there's a fork in the road.

Oh, that fork in the road. Paul turns to boilerplate conservative rhetoric:

We could have gone one of two directions. One was towards more competition and more marketplace and one was toward more government control. The people who think that the government can efficiently distribute medicine need to explain why the VA's been struggling for decade after decade in a much smaller system.

Points for working in the VA, the Obama scandal du jour. Let’s leave that alone, it’s a story in itself. Continue, Sen. Paul:

And they also need to explain, even though I think we all want Medicare to work better, why Medicare is $35 trillion short.

Huh? First of all, Paul doesn’t “want Medicare to work better,” he wants to repeal it. That’s something you don’t hear much about, but he sponsored a bill with Utah Tea Party Sen. Mike Lee to replace Medicare with the Congressional Health Care Plan members of Congress buy in to, essentially privatizing it. The bill would also raise the age of eligibility from 65 to 70. That ought to go over well with the GOP’s rapidly aging white base. That’s why Paul is forced to lie about his own Medicare position.

And the allegation that Medicare is “$35 trillion short”? I could find no documentation for it besides a Heritage Foundation blog post, and a ton of YouTube videos where Rand Paul makes the claim on Fox News.  It seems to refer to a 2011 estimate by Medicare trustees that the Part A Trust Fund would face a shortfall by 2026 unless payroll taxes were raised or program costs were trimmed – and the Affordable Care Act has been trimming them.  It’s bunk.

Then Paul turns briefly to the question of Kynect:

There's a lot of questions that are big questions that are beyond the exchange and the Kynect and things like that. It's whether or not how we're going to fund these things.

But then he detours again, to take us back to the already debunked example of TJ Samson hospital’s Medicaid-induced “layoffs.”

If they lose 50 good paying jobs in the hospital, is that good? Then we’ve got more people in the wagon, and less people pulling the wagon.

With that profound Kentucky take on Paul Ryan’s “makers vs. takers” narrative, he walks away. And we’re back to Mitt Romney’s deriding the “47 percent.” In Paul's more colorful telling, the problem is that some of us pull the wagon, while freeloaders and layabouts just lounge in it. For 50 years, Republicans have tried to tell voters the folks “in the wagon” are minorities. But in Kentucky, which is 88 percent white, they’re mainly white. So Rand Paul, the great 2016 hope, is really a prisoner of the elitist 2012 narrative that cost the GOP the White House.

Even though there’s so much to explore in Paul’s Kynect two-step – delusion, ideology, outright lies – the media mostly ignored it. Those who’ve paid attention simply covered the admittedly newsworthy Obamacare evasion. But I think Paul's entire stand-up act, his performance art -- Being a Very Serious Senator, or at least playing one on TV -- deserves more attention. It’s only the soft bigotry of the media’s low expectations for Republicans, and maybe a little of society’s sexism, that makes Rand Paul someone to contend with in 2016, when Sarah Palin is widely just a punch line.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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