By possibly taking the public option off the table, Democrats who favor nationalized health care have acknowledged that their opponents are winning the public relations debate. Massive grassroots demonstrations against ObamaCare seem to be turning the tide. This should remain true--so long as opponents maintain their credibility with the public. But credibility may be endangered by overzealous advocates who are willing to trade facts for rhetorical flourishes.
The flap over "death panels" is a good example, but only the tip of the iceberg. It made for terrific rhetoric--Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, famously proclaimed, "We should not have a government plan that will pull the plug on grandma!"--but the underlying charge was untrue.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, an opponent of ObamaCare, was "offended by the terminology because it absolutely" wasn't in the bill. As Murkowski put it, the real details "are bad enough that we don't need to be making things up."
When the first bill was introduced, I was anxious to get up to speed. Former New York Lieutenant Gov. Betsy McCaughey, who has become a nationally featured spokeswoman against ObamaCare, helpfully produced an analysis that was annotated to the bill. Her claims were shocking, infuriating--and, as it turned out upon inspection of the relevant bill language, mostly false.
More recently, McCaughey charged that the latest bill "would make it mandatory--absolutely require--that every five years, people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner, how to decline nutrition, how to decline being hydrated, how to go in to hospice care." Again, untrue: The bill would have made such services available, but not mandatory.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin picked up the cue, declaring that "the America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel.' " No question, such a panel would be "downright evil," as Palin put it. But no such panel would be established by the bill.
Health care rationing would inevitably flow from a mandatory, government-run system designed to cut national expenditures on health care. This might well lead to bureaucratic decisions, certainly at the level of covered services and possibly in individual circumstances. But the particular provision in the bill did no such thing.
Some argue that the ends justify the means--after all, the provision at issue was yanked. But that may only make some folks think the bill is better because the problem was fixed, when it wasn't. It's the concept of nationalized health care that needs to be killed, not its particulars. And if opponents misstate the particulars, the people in the middle--who supported the concept when Obama was a candidate but have turned against it recently--may well swing back when a more "moderate" proposal is announced.
Once credibility is lost, it can never be regained. The bill itself, of course, rests on serious exaggerations, such as the crisis in health insurance coverage (roughly 15% of Americans lack health insurance; among those, approximately 20% can afford insurance but choose not to obtain it and another 20% are illegal immigrants). But guess who the mainstream media targets? Mainly the opponents, who as a result must be far more scrupulous. Indeed, the New York Times ran a large front-page article devoted solely to exploring the origin of the "death panel" rumors. If the public stops believing the leading opponents, the tide will turn once again.
Having spent a career pursuing David vs. Goliath causes, I've learned that the little guy can win when the big guy overplays his hand. Like Bill Clinton before him, Barack Obama has overplayed his hand in seeking a vast new national health care apparatus. As a result, those who favor health care freedom are prevailing. The last thing we should do is risk the credibility on which not only short-term but enduring victory can only be constructed.
Clint Bolick is director of the Goldwater Institute Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation in Phoenix and a research fellow with the Hoover Institution.