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July 29, 2014

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Inventing a failure

House Republicans recently released a deliberately misleading report on the status of health reform, crudely rigging the numbers to sustain the illusion of failure in the face of unexpected success. Are you shocked?

You aren’t, but you should be. Mainstream politicians didn’t always try to advance their agenda through lies, damned lies and — in this case — bogus statistics. And the fact that this has become standard operating procedure for a major party bodes ill for America’s future.

About that report: The really big policy news of 2014, at least so far, is the spectacular recovery of the Affordable Care Act from its stumbling start, thanks to an extraordinary late surge that took enrollment beyond early projections. The age mix of enrollees has improved; insurance companies are broadly satisfied with the risk pool. Multiple independent surveys confirm that the percentage of Americans without health insurance has already declined substantially, and there’s every reason to believe that over the next two years the act will meet its overall goals, except in states that refuse to expand Medicaid.

This is a problem for Republicans, who have bet the ranch on the proposition that health reform is an unfixable failure. “Nobody can make Obamacare work,” declared Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, a few weeks ago (when it was already obvious that it was working pretty well). How can they respond to good news?

Well, they could graciously admit that they were wrong and offer constructive suggestions about how to make the law work even better.

Oh, sorry — I forgot that I wasn’t writing jokes for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

No, they have in fact continued to do what they’ve been doing ever since the news on Obamacare started turning positive: Sling as much mud as possible at health reform, in the hope that some of it sticks. Premiums were soaring, they declared, when they have actually come in below projections. Millions of people were losing coverage, they insisted, when the great bulk of those whose policies were canceled simply replaced them with new policies. The Obama administration was cooking the books, they cried (projection, anyone?). And, of course, they keep peddling horror stories about people suffering terribly from Obamacare, not one of which has withstood scrutiny.

Now comes the latest claim — that many of the people who signed up for insurance aren’t actually paying their premiums. Obviously, this claim is part of a continuing pattern. It also, however, involves a change in tactics. Previous attacks on Obamacare were pretty much fact-free; this time, the claim was backed by a survey purporting to show that a third of enrollees hadn’t paid their first premium.

But the survey was rigged. (Are you surprised?) It asked insurers how many enrollees had paid their first premium; it ignored the fact that the first premium wasn’t even due for the millions of people who signed up for insurance after March 15.

And the fact that the survey was so transparently rigged is a smoking gun, proving that the attacks on Obamacare aren’t just bogus; they’re deliberately bogus. The staffers who set up that survey knew enough about the numbers to skew them, which meant that they have to have known that Obamacare is actually doing OK.

So why are Republicans doing this? Sad to say, there’s method in their fraudulence.

First of all, it fires up the base. After this latest exercise in deception, we can be fairly sure that Republican leaders know perfectly well that Obamacare has failed to fail. But the party faithful don’t. Like anyone who writes about these issues, I get vast amounts of mail from people who know, just know, that insurance premiums are skyrocketing, that far more people have lost insurance because of Obummercare than have gained it, that all the horror stories are real and that anyone who says otherwise is just a liberal shill.

Beyond that, the constant harping on alleged failure works as innuendo even if each individual claim collapses in the face of evidence. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a majority of Americans know that more than 8 million people enrolled in health exchanges; but it also found a majority of respondents believing that this was below expectations and that the law was working badly.

So Republicans are spreading disinformation about health reform because it works and because they can — there is no sign that they pay any political price when their accusations are proved false.

And that observation should scare you. What happens to the Congressional Budget Office if a party that has learned that lying about numbers works takes full control of Congress? What happens if it regains the White House, too? Nothing good, that’s for sure.

Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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