The tea party emerged as a tangible political force in the summer of 2009, aided and abetted by Fox News. The anger, which was its signature in town meetings around the country, was stoked by the likes of Sarah Palin, the erstwhile vice presidential candidate.
She was the first to suggest that the universal health care plan being considered, included a “death panel” of bureaucrats which would make the life and death decisions about who was “worthy of medical care.” She went even further by suggesting that under the president’s plan that panel would decide if her son with Down syndrome should be euthanized.
Immediately, the usual suspects — Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann and Fox News anchors — took up the death panel chant, further inciting all those tea-partiers yelling and waving their fists at town meetings that August.
However, fear of death panels went mainstream when Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, joined the fray. Grassley had the credibility these other critics didn’t have, because he was on a six-person Senate Finance Committee panel formed to produce a bipartisan universal health care plan.
So it was big news when at one of his own town meetings in Iowa, Grassley told the restive crowd, “you have every right to fear……we should not have a government plan to decide when to pull the plug on grandma.”
A few weeks ago I attended a small, private dinner in New York City for Olympia Snowe, the three-term moderate Republican senator from Maine who decided last year not to seek reelection because she could no longer tolerate the toxic partisanship of Washington.
As it happens, Senator Snowe had also been a member of that Senate Finance Committee gang of six, of which Senator Grassley had been the ranking Republican. In discussing the group’s attempts to reach a bipartisan deal, she spoke of the negative impact of what Grassley had said about this panel’s efforts. She said she had called him and told him there was nothing in the plans they were discussing that remotely came close to death panels or pulling the plug on grandma. To her astonishment his response was, “I know.”
Actually, about two weeks after Grassley had made his original charge, he appeared on CBS “Face the Nation.” In a long, convoluted answer he essentially recanted what he had told his town meeting. But the damage had already been done.
At the end of the summer of ’09 — in spite of numerous mainstream media reports quoting a wide range of academics and physicians debunking the death panel myth — 85 percent of Americans had heard about it, and a third of those believed it. At the end of 2009, Politifact designated the Death Panel Myth “The Lie Of The Year.”
I raise the contentious word “lie” because in the past two weeks President Barack Obama has been accused of lying to the American people about the benefits of Obamacare. Mitt Romney, whose casual relationship with the truth was a feature of his 2012 presidential campaign, called the president a liar on Meet the Press. There is hardly a Republican office-holder in the country who has not by now also done so.
At issue of course is Obama’s frequently stated promise that if you liked your current medical insurance policy, you would be allowed to keep it, period. That turns out not to be true, at least, not exactly. Many people who buy their own health insurance on the individual market — less than 5 percent of those who have insurance — are evidently being informed by their insurers that their policies have been canceled.
In many cases it’s because their coverage falls below the minimum standards set by the Affordable Care Act. They may be able to get better coverage, and even have their premiums subsidized. But because the ACA website is still not working properly they have no way of knowing what their options are.
It would have been better if Obama had said: “For 95 percent of you, if you like your current insurance you can keep it. For the rest of you in the private markets, we will do our best to give you better insurance and in many cases help you pay the premiums.”
That would have been full disclosure. Admittedly, that doesn’t make for a snappy sound bite. It’s like having a bumper sticker of a hundred or so words. Still, what he said was not true and he is now paying a heavy price for that.
I believe that presidents should not lie. However I also believe in proportionality. Lies that do great harm to many people — such as starting a war under false pretenses with enormous costs in human lives and national treasure — in my view represent a greater sin than say, lies about one’s sex life. Republicans in Congress were quite happy to give President George W. Bush a total pass in the first instance, but forced an impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in the second.
Likewise, many of those who are crying crocodile tears for those whose health care policies have been canceled are the very people who are fighting beyond all reason to kill Obamacare. That would deprive 30-50 million Americans of any health insurance at all, and leave many millions more still subject to the capricious, profit-driven whims of the insurance companies about what is or is not covered.
That is the status quo to which the Obamacare-haters want to return, and they have consistently lied — not to mention taken the country to the brink of economic disaster — to achieve that highly dubious goal.
In fact, the framework for Obamacare is the creation of the Conservative Heritage Foundation, supported by mainstream Republicans as a counter to then-President Clinton’s health care proposal. It only became “socialized medicine” when that “Kenyan-born,” “Muslim,” “Communist” “usurper” forced it on this country. Yes. There are lies and then there are lies.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.MORE IN Perspective
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