Republicans may have succeeded in stalling health care reform, at least for now. But that doesn’t mean the press should give them a pass when they lie about where and how the plan falls short. That’s what Judy Woodruff did Friday night on the NewsHour. The program featured a clip of the president’s meeting with Republicans, and then Woodruff interviewed Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas. They talked about the budget, and that Americans want accountability in government, and that they weren’t too keen on the Louisiana Purchase or the Cornhusker kickback, the goodies the Senate bestowed on senators from those states to get their votes on the health reform package.
The conversation inevitably turned to health care and Woodruff brought up the notion of a Bolshevik plot, a term the president used Friday when he said:
You’d think this thing was some Bolshevik plot. No, I mean, that’s how you guys—that’s how you guys presented it.
The president described his plan as pretty middle-of-the-road. After all, he said, components of it are similar to what Howard Baker, Bob Dole, and Tom Daschle proposed last year. Baker, Dole, and Daschle, Bolsheviks? Not on your life.
Woodruff mildly challenged Hensarling on the Bolshevik bit, and the congressman replied that the “president used a little overheated rhetoric.” But then he went on to insist that the American people don’t believe this is a centrist plan because honest budget accounting would show that the cost of reform is “closer to a $2 trillion plan,” and “you have government defining costs. You have government defining benefits. It’s just not a centrist plan.” Hmm! A new label for Obama’s health reform, brought to you by the Republican wordsmiths, perhaps? Do Republicans mean they are going to define what “centrist” is?
Woodruff didn’t dig into the meaning, noting that the president said he had incorporated a number of Republican ideas into his proposals. She gave her Republican guest a chance to talk about some of them—malpractice reform (which the docs crave), selling insurance across state lines (something insurance carriers can hardly wait for). All these are ideas that the media needs to explore in greater depth. Hensarling returned to one familiar point: “At its core essence, it is a huge, expensive, draconian package that has government taking over a huge portion, and people just don’t consider it centrist,” he said. There was that word again.
Hensarling told Woodruff that Republicans could work with the president on tax relief for small business, job creation, and free-trade agreements. “But we’re not going to work with him on the nationalization of the health care system,” he told her. Nationalization of the health care system? Au contraire! Either the congressman didn’t know what that means, or he had another agenda—that messaging thing again.
Woodruff didn’t press him, nor did she come back and explain that nationalization of health care is not on the table, and never has been. Nationalization means that the government takes over the means of production—owns the hospitals, medical practices, insurance companies and so forth. The reform package would deliver some 30 million new customers to the insurance industry. Letting them profit from all those new customers hardly sounds like nationalization.
Nor does Hensarling’s concept of a big bad government plan—spending $2 trillion (for subsidies for the uninsured) and the government defining benefits and costs—sound like nationalization, either. The government gives all kinds of subsidies to its citizens —Republican farmers come to mind. Subsidies acknowledge a market failure, and most experts consider it a market failure when millions of people are unable to buy private health insurance. Defining a level of benefits for coverage sold in an insurance exchange might be smart public policy, but it is not nationalization, socialism, or any other ism Republicans might conjure up.
We know the public doesn’t understand the ins and outs of health reform. Friday’s talk about Bolshevik plots and nationalization didn’t help. When lies and misrepresentations go unchallenged, they have a way of transforming themselves into the truth. That’s where the press must come in.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.