The old saying that ‘you’re welcome to your own opinions but not your own facts’ seems quaint in today’s political environment. We’re a nation divided not only by partisanship and ideology, but also by wildly divergent realities.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the discourse around Obamacare. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be made of the Affordable Care Act, but many conservatives — including the dominant faction within today’s Republican Party — speak about Obamacare as if it were an ebola pandemic, melting the organs of the American heartland from within.
Some of the claims ostensibly respectable figures on the right make about the law are simply mind boggling. This week, Ben Carson, a conservative surgeon and activist — and the flavor-of-the-day at Fox News – told a crowd at this year’s “Values Voters Summit” that Obamacare is “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” Forget two world wars, the Great Depression or coming within an inch of annihilation during the Cold War.
Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita (R) reached back further in time to condemn the ACA as “one of the most insidious laws ever created by man,” which prompted Jon Stewart to point out that Rokita was, in effect, “putting Obamacare up with the Nuremberg laws, the Spanish Inquisition and prima nocta — the medieval law where on your wedding night the king gets to sleep with your wife.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), an enthusiastic promoter of Politifact’s Lies of the Year in 2009 (“death panels”) and 2010 (“government takeover of health care”), was more subtle, concluding merely that the ACA would eventually turn the US into a “police state” and “will ultimately be known as DeathCare.” For Rick Santorum, Obamacare is a direct “descendant of the French Revolution.” And Arizona state Rep. Brenda Barton told a reporter, “You better read your history. Germany started with national health care and gun control before [the Holocaust] happened. And Hitler was elected by a majority of people.”
This stuff is nothing short of comical when you recall that Obamacare was a conservative answer to the doomed “Hillarycare” plan (which would have mandated that most employers provide decent coverage for their workers). The Republican Party’s last presidential nominee called the very similar scheme he’d enacted as governor of Massachusetts, “the ultimate conservatism,” adding: “that’s why the Heritage Foundation worked with us… [they] recognized that the principles of free enterprise and personal responsibility were at work.” Of the provision that conservatives now decry as an egregious assault on Americans’ freedoms, Mitt Romney explained, “we got the idea of an individual mandate… from [Newt Gingrich], and [Newt] got it from the Heritage Foundation.”
When you get into the details, the health care law is complex, with a whole bunch of moving parts (it’s certainly a lot more complex than “Medicare for all” would have been). But the broad strokes are relatively simple: there are a number of (highly popular) new regulations on insurers; there are exchanges where private companies offer a variety of insurance plans; it’s got subsidies that make those plans more affordable for the middle class; there’s an expansion of Medicaid for the poor, and a mandate – Romney referred to it as his “personal responsibility program” – which makes those popular regulations work.
While people who don’t consume an enormous amount of Fox News can easily laugh off the Hitler comparisons, another line of argument made by virtually every conservative in America is just as unmoored from reality: the claim that the law has already proven to be a calamity. Ted Cruz (R-TX) recently spoke with a straight face of “the enormous harms Obamacare is causing, all of the millions of Americans who are losing their jobs, being pushed into part-time work, losing their health insurance.”
It would be interesting to know what Cruz believes to be the mechanism for all these horrors, given that the employer mandate won’t go into effect for another year and health care costs are growing at the slowest rate since the government started tracking that data in 1960.
Nothing Cruz said is reflected in any objective reality. The private sector has added jobs in every single month since Obamacare was signed in March of 2010. After rising over the previous decade, the share of Americans without health insurance declined from 16.3 percent in 2010 to 15.4 percent last year. And there’s no evidence other than anecdotal tales hyped by Fox News of employers cutting workers’ hours to less than 30 per week – the minimum before the employer mandate kicks in. That provision was supposed to go into effect in 2014, based on 2013 employment data, and when economists Helene Jorgenson and Dean Baker looked at the numbers, they found that the share of workers putting between 26-29 hours per week had actually fallen between 2012 and 2013.
“The fundamental problem in Washington is Washington is not listening to America,” Cruz said last week. But even the widespread belief among conservatives that public opinion is on their side is detached from what nonpartisan polling reveals. A recent CBS poll, for example, found that 51 percent of respondents disapproved of the law compared to 43 percent who liked it. But 20 percent of those polled said the ACA did “not go far enough in changing the health care system,” and only 25 percent approved of shutting down the government to block the law.
Also, many Americans haven’t a clue what’s in Obamacare – a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll conducted in April found that four-in-ten thought that it had been repealed or struck down by the courts. That means a significant number of those who disapprove of the law think it’s casting millions of people out of work and driving the cost of health care through the roof – or that it’s akin to slavery, the French Revolution and the Holocaust. Another KFF poll, conducted in March, asked people what they thought of 11 of Obamacare’s provisions, and found that ten of them enjoyed the support of significant majorities – only the “personal responsibility program” Newt Gingrich got from the Heritage Foundation and then passed on to Mitt Romney proved unpopular. What’s more, the elements of the law people liked best were among those that the fewest respondents knew about.
The great irony here is that the rollout of the new health care exchanges has been a complete disaster. There are any number of reasoned criticisms opponents of the law could make were they grounded in the real world, but from inside the conservative media bubble, Obamacare is not just an unnecesarily complicated scheme that’s had big-time implementation problems due to cronyism, bad management and too many cooks in the kitchen – it’s a planet-killing asteroid hurtling right at us.
Which leads to an even greater irony: by throwing an epic tantrum and shutting down the government, Obamacare’s fiercest opponents have sucked media coverage away from all the glitches and screw-ups that marked the first two weeks of enrollment. In fact, according to the NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll released last week, the showdown has had a “boomerang effect,” raising the law’s popularity by seven percentage points and prompting one liberal group to send Ted Cruz a lovely fruit basket and a warm note of thanks.