‘Death Panels’ Revisited
How Sarah Palin helped defeat ObamaCare’s deceptive advertising.
By JAMES TARANTO
“At a time when there is virtually unanimous agreement that health care reform is needed in this country, it is hard to invalidate and strike down a statute titled ‘The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,’ ” Judge Roger Vinson observed Monday in his ruling in Florida v. HHS, which did just that.
It would have been a lot harder had ObamaCare enjoyed wide political support. But it did not and does not. Americans never bought the bill of goods that Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and their supporters in the formerly mainstream media tried to sell. A good deal of the credit goes to Sarah Palin, for coining the phrase “death panel” in an August 2009 Facebook post.
Four months later PolitiFact.com, a project of the left-leaning St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, named the phrase “lie of the year”:
Her assertion–that the government would set up boards to determine whether seniors and the disabled were worthy of care–spread through newscasts, talk shows, blogs and town hall meetings. Opponents of health care legislation said it revealed the real goals of the Democratic proposals. Advocates for health reform said it showed the depths to which their opponents would sink. Still others scratched their heads and said, “Death panels? Really?”
In truth, PolitiFact was more vulnerable to the charge of lying than Palin was, for its highly literal, out-of-context interpretation of her words was at best extremely tendentious. What she wrote was this:
The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. 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” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.
Palin put the term “death panel” in quotes to indicate that she was using it figuratively. She was not lying but doing just the opposite: conveying a fundamental truth about ObamaCare. Proponents were describing it as a sort of fiscal perpetual-motion machine: We’re going to give free insurance to tens of millions of people and reduce the deficit! As a matter of simple arithmetic, the only way to do that is by drastically curtailing medical benefits.
“Health care by definition involves life and death decisions,” Palin wrote. ObamaCare necessarily expands the power of federal bureaucrats to make such decisions, and it creates enormous fiscal pressures to err on the side of death. Whether it establishes literal panels for that purpose is a hair-splitting quibble. By naming this “lie of the year,” PolitiFact showed itself to be less seeker of truth than servant of power.
President Obama, meanwhile, treated Palin’s criticism as a joke. As we noted at the time, he told a New Hampshire town meeting: “The rumor that’s been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for ‘death panels’ that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we’ve decided that we don’t–it’s too expensive to let her live anymore.” The transcript records that the audience laughed at this callous “joke.”
The perpetual-motion claim wasn’t the only deception at the heart of the argument for ObamaCare. Consider the individual mandate, whose unconstitutionality was the center of Judge Vinson’s ruling. In a footnote, Vinson quotes a critic of the idea as observing, “If a mandate was the solution, we can try that to solve homelessness by mandating everybody to buy a house.” Guess who? CNSNews.com digs up the full context:
“Both of us want to provide health care to all Americans. There’s a slight difference, and her plan is a good one. But, she mandates that everybody buy health care. She’d have the government force every individual to buy insurance and I don’t have such a mandate because I don’t think the problem is that people don’t want health insurance, it’s that they can’t afford it,” [then-Sen. Barack] Obama said in a Feb. 28, 2008 appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ television show. “So, I focus more on lowering costs. This is a modest difference. But, it’s one that she’s tried to elevate, arguing that because I don’t force people to buy health care that I’m not insuring everybody. Well, if things were that easy, I could mandate everybody to buy a house, and that would solve the problem of homelessness. It doesn’t.”
Obama ran for office on opposition to the individual mandate, then made it the centerpiece of his signature legislative initiative. Perhaps this should have been “lie of the year.” At PolitiFact.com, it wasn’t even a runner-up.
And what is the individual mandate, anyway? In September 2009, ABC News host George Stephanopoulos argued in an interview with the president that it is a tax increase. Obama strenuously denied it and indeed accused Stephanopoulos of dishonesty:
“For us to say that you’ve got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. . . . George, you–you can’t just make up that language and decide that that’s called a tax increase.”
By last July, the administration was–well, just making up that language and deciding that that’s called a tax increase. As even the New York Times reported:
When Congress required most Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, Democrats denied that they were creating a new tax. But in court, the Obama administration and its allies now defend the requirement as an exercise of the government’s “power to lay and collect taxes.”
And that power, they say, is even more sweeping than the federal power to regulate interstate commerce.
Administration officials say the tax argument is a linchpin of their legal case in defense of the health care overhaul and its individual mandate, now being challenged in court by more than 20 states and several private organizations.
Lie of the year? Nope, again not even a PolitiFact.com runner-up. The winner for 2010, announced Dec. 16, was “The Democrats’ health care reform law is a ‘government takeover of health care.’ ” This was a “lie,” PolitiFact averred, because the government did not formally nationalize the health-industry via the so-called public option.
The same day that PolitiFact was announcing its 2010 “lie of the year,” an exchange in Judge Vinson’s courtroom was giving the lie to it. As Bloomberg reported:
“We’ve always exercised the freedom whether we want to buy or not buy a product,” Vinson told the Obama administration’s lawyer.
[Justice Department lawyer Ian] Gershengorn said health insurance is “a financing mechanism,” not a product. “It’s not shoes,” he said. “It’s not cars. It’s not broccoli.”
As we wrote at the time:
Under the scheme envisioned by ObamaCare, in which insurers would be obliged to cover all comers, a medical policy would no longer be insurance–that is, a contract to indemnify the policyholder against risk. It would instead be, as Gershengorn describes it, a “financing mechanism” for medical services. . . . Because participation would be mandatory, the “premium,” and not just the penalty for failure to pay it, would effectively be a tax.
In a famous 2003 video, Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator, declared, “I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health-care program.” That is, Obama wished for a system of outright socialization of health-care costs, in which the government would pay for medical treatment using tax dollars. ObamaCare differs from such a system only in that ostensibly private insurance companies act as the government’s middleman, collecting the taxes and paying the benefits.
“Government takeover,” like “death panel,” is a true description of ObamaCare’s essence. These phrases are “inaccurate” only in that they cut through formal distinctions designed to deceive the public. (We wish we could use a barnyard vulgarity in place of the unwieldy clause “formal distinctions designed to deceive the public,” but The Wall Street Journal is a family newspaper.)
“Death panel” was especially effective at cutting through the hockey. Lots of people warned about rationing, but, as PolitiFact grudgingly acknowledged, it was Palin’s vivid language that “launched the health care debate into overdrive. The term was mentioned in news reports approximately 6,000 times in August and September, according to the Nexis database. By October, it was still being mentioned 150 to 300 times a week.”
Many of these media mentions were disparaging, “raising issues,” as PolitiFact prissily puts it, about “the bounds of acceptable political discussion.” In other words, Palin’s statement was widely propagated by journalists who thought it “unacceptable.” Americans recognized the essential truth of Palin’s words and strongly opposed ObamaCare.
Palin got the truth out with the help of journalists determined to bolster the deceptions at the heart of ObamaCare. She was instrumental in winning the political argument that looks increasingly likely to render ObamaCare’s legislative victory a Pyrrhic one. Sarah Palin outsmarted the formerly mainstream media simply by being blunt and honest. That is why they burn with a mindless rage against her.
Thursday, 03 Febraury 11
In our lead item yesterday, we erred in asserting that "death panel" was a figurative description of the rationing of medical services that would be a necessary consequence of ObamaCare. A reader reminds us of an interview President Obama gave to the New York Times's David Leonhardt in April 2009, which was published in the May 3 issue of the Times magazine.
After Obama tells the story of his grandmother's getting a hip replacement shortly before she died, the following exchange ensues:
Obama: So that's where I think you just get into some very difficult moral issues. But that's also a huge driver of cost, right?
I mean, the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here.
Leonhardt: So how do you--how do we deal with it?
Obama: Well, I think that there is going to have to be a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place. It is very difficult to imagine the country making those decisions just through the normal political channels. And that's part of why you have to have some independent group that can give you guidance. It's not determinative, but I think has to be able to give you some guidance. And that's part of what I suspect you'll see emerging out of the various health care conversations that are taking place on the Hill right now.
Obama proposed a "conversation" between "doctors, scientists [and] ethicists" for the purpose of giving "guidance" to government bureaucrats making decisions outside "the normal political channels" as to when to deny medical care.
"Death panel" describes this perfectly. Sarah Palin was even more right than we gave her credit for.
BEST OF THE WEB TODAY
FEBRUARY 2, 2011
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ONLINE