Memo to McCain: Dems Are Not Calling for Government Health Care

Stephanopoulos tries (unsuccessfully) to set the record straight

On his This Week program on Sunday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos seemed to try to redeem his thoroughly unstellar performance in the last Clinton-Obama debate. He took on John McCain and bored in on what he called the candidate’s “evolving position” on tax cuts. His questioning was tough, but by the time he got to the next subject, health care, perhaps he tired of putting McCain on the spot. It was a classic case of a reporter trying to ask sharp questions and a media-trained politician getting the upper hand by “bridging” to points he wanted to make. That was too bad, because too many of McCain’s health care statements cry out for more questioning and explanation. The candidate basically went unchallenged on This Week, leaving viewers with unclear and erroneous impressions of both his and his rivals’ plans.

At the start of the health segment, Stephanopoulos did try to pin McCain down on what may become his health care Achilles heel—that people who have health conditions can’t buy insurance in the private marketplace that McCain supports. Stephanopoulos showed the often-seen clip of Elizabeth Edwards saying that—because both she and Mcain have experienced cancer—neither of them would qualify for health coverage under the plan McCain proposes. Why not guarantee that anyone with a pre-existing condition should be able to get health care, Stephanopoulos wanted to know. The senator said that his administration would set up a special Medicaid trust fund “to help to care for those people who have pre-existing conditions. We’re not leaving anybody behind.” A Medicaid trust fund? Did McCain mean he would put everyone with cancer and heart disease and asthma and glaucoma into a means-tested welfare program and make them jump through eligibility hoops to get treatment for their disease? How would the middle class, or even those with big bank accounts, feel about going on welfare to get chemotherapy? Stephanopoulos needed to probe more. He did not.

Instead McCain quickly changed the subject—that’s what media trainers teach—get to your message and dodge the questions being asked. His message: We’re not going to have a big government takeover and mandates, he said, adding that other countries have tried that. Then he went further, saying that plans offered by both Clinton and Obama “are big government solutions.” Stephanopoulos pushed in: “What’s wrong with government-run health care?” he asked. “Go to Canada or go to England and you can find out what’s wrong with it,” McCain said, offering that “governments don’t make the right decisions; families make the right decisions.” Stephanopoulos didn’t press for specifics.

What Stephanopoulos didn’t tell viewers is that neither Clinton nor Obama proposes a government takeover of health care. More to the point—their proposals would deliver a huge market of new customers to private insurance companies. Their plans would also give Americans the choice of a public plan like Medicare, which hardly qualifies as a government takeover. It does mean that some people might find the public program more suitable if it gives them the choice that politicians continually say people want. McCain himself talked repeatedly about choice in Sunday’s interview. He said there was a fundamental difference between his plan and those of the two Democrats. “I want families to make the choices. They want the government to make the choices.” Stephanopoulos missed again. Exactly what choices do the Democrats want government to make? For the last decade or so, insurance companies have made health care choices through managed care, often deciding what treatments patients get and which specialists they can see. Is the government going to take over that role? Is that what McCain was suggesting? How, exactly?

Stephanopoulos returned to a theme Elizabeth Edwards has hammered for the past few weeks—that McCain has had government run health care all his life. Why shouldn’t every American get health care like members of Congress and the military, Stephanopoulos pushed. McCain ducked the question, calling it a “cheap shot.” He noted that there was a time when he didn’t have good government care given by another government, presumably referring to his time as a prisoner in Vietnam. Then before the topic switched again, McCain said he knew what it was like in America not to have health care. “We know Americans are hurting there,” he said, and pitched other aspects of his plan, like letting insurance companies sell policies across state lines, a proposal that needs a careful examination, but didn’t get it on this show.

The Stephanopoulos interview is instructive. Questioning candidates who have been media trained to the hilt is hard. Reporters need to know their stuff and amplify what the candidates are saying even if it means telling audiences where they are just plain wrong. This is not the time to be shy.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.