the national interest

Is It Mean to Debunk Lies About Obamacare?

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) sits on a couch as she prepares for responding to President Barack Obama tonight's State of the Union address January 28, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House Republican Conference, was picked to deliver the response.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Some eight months before the midterm elections, the airwaves are being flooded with the sad tales of Obamacare victims. The tales all fall into the same predictable rut. First, the poor victim steps forward to share his (or, more frequently, her) tale of deprivation. Then reporters discover the putative victim is either a non-victim, or possibly a beneficiary, of Obamacare. Then conservatives get angry.

Finding a person made worse off by a huge, complex social-policy reform still in its first months in a gigantic country ought to be simple, yet the Republican Party has continuously failed to achieve even in the modest task which was its charge. In her reply to President Obama’s State of the Union address, Cathy McMorris-Rogers held out the plight of “Bette from Spokane,” who is facing an astronomical price increase, which turned out to be highly inaccurate. The victim, Bette Grenier, could have secured a better plan if she had checked on the exchange, but told a reporter following up, “I wouldn’t go on that Obama website at all.” And yes, if the criteria for Obamacare victimhood includes forcing somebody to participate in a law designed by Barack Obama in order to save money, then any Obama-created health-care law is going to produce a lot of victims.

The pattern has recurred over and over. What’s notable is the sheer pathos displayed by the right. Americans for Prosperity has run an ad in Michigan featuring Julie Boonstra, a leukemia patient who tells the camera, to the accompaniment of sad piano music, that Obamacare will prevent her from being able to get life-saving medicine. The story is conceptually bizarre – the whole economic structure of the law reorders the market in a way that’s more favorable to people with preexisting conditions. The losers, as it were, are healthy people with high incomes.

Glenn Kessler reported out Boonstra’s circumstances, and discovers she is almost certainly not facing higher costs under her new plan. American for prosperity replied, “this is the story of Julie, a real person suffering from blood cancer, not some neat and tidy White House PowerPoint about how the ACA is helping everyone.” The argument, so far as one can be detected, seems to be that people who have cancer are entitled to blame anything on Obamacare and nobody has the right to examine their claims.

Byron York, reporter for the conservative Washington Examiner, has a column today lashing out at fact-checkers for debunking the stories of “Obamacare victims”:

Regardless of the details of her case, Boonstra is a victim of Obamacare falsehoods and of credulous journalists who let the president get away with it until it was too late. It’s time for journalists – especially those in Washington and New York – to remember that they are supposed to be serving the public interest, not the partisan preferences of a president most admit they admire. Their first priority should be fact-checking politicians, not private citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.

So York’s case here boils down to three points:

1) This poor woman was the victim of a promise she could keep her plan, which entitles her to claim her new plan costs more money even if it costs less;

2) Fact-checking journalists probably voted for Obama, and many of them live in Washington and New York;

3) The right to appear in a misleading campaign attack ad is so sacrosanct that even contradicting any claims made in such a setting is a threat to the First Amendment.

In response to Greg Sargent, who has written a series of posts debunking the claims made by putative Obamacare victims, York added a fourth argument – the woman has cancer:

So the new rule in conservative media is that, if you have a terrible enough disease, your claims can be used in attack ads and any reporter who tries to verify them is insensitive to their illness. Too bad conservatives hadn’t discovered this principle in 2012, because it would have been fun to watch them defending that ad featuring a man blaming Mitt Romney for his wife’s death.

Is It Mean to Debunk Lies About Obamacare?