Two parties could play the disinformation game

The Thinker by Rodin

I suspect that it was mostly us political junkies who watched President Obama’s speech before a joint session of Congress last night. My wife cares very much about health care reform, but not enough, apparently, to watch the speech with me. It was one of Obama’s better speeches, but it should have been delivered months ago. His administration has been floundering trying to master the health care reform debate and the speech was a belated attempt to regain control of the debate. For such an important initiative, it required better marketing effort than it has so far received.

Granted, Obama has had a few distractions to deal with, like fixing our tanking economy. It appears that our recession is over, but to the unemployed, whose ranks are likely to continue to swell in the months ahead, this is meaningless. Health care reform appears to be in part a victim of an administration trying to do too much at once. It is also the victim of learning too many lessons from the failure of health care reform during the Clinton Administration. Certain those dynamics are still in play, they appear to have floundered responding forcefully to the new dynamics of the debate. With luck, Obama’s speech at least changed the dynamics.

South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson certainly made a name of himself by heckling Obama during the speech. When Obama said accusations that reform would cover illegal immigrants was false, Wilson stood up in the middle of a joint session and called the president a liar. He has subsequently apologized for the incident, although it sounded halfhearted. While he agrees he acted disrespectfully, he still believes that health care reform proposals will indeed cover illegal immigrants, even though this is demonstrably false.

As Wilson demonstrates, Republicans seem to state as fact what could happen rather than what is actually being proposed. Using the “could” argument, of course, anything is possible. A subsequent Congress could explicitly decide to cover illegal immigrants so there you go, it must be true. In the minds of many Republicans, because anything is possible in the future, this means that Democrats are actively planning to make it so. There is a word for this sort of behavior: paranoia. Sometimes paranoia is justifiable. When paranoia extends to acts that are only imagined but have no basis in fact, one of two things is going on. In the case of Joe Wilson, it suggests a psychosis. Wilson could probably use some therapy, including anger management therapy. Most Republicans in Congress though are too smart to be psychotic. Which means that when they spew garbage like these imaginary death panels they are simply lying. Obama was correct to call those spewing these lies what they are: liars.

Wilson apparently transgressed the line of propriety by expressing his opinion during a joint session of Congress. However, being a politician means that you are free to lie the rest of the time, unless you are under oath. The only thing that really matters is whether voters will hold you accountable for your lies. The odds are stacked in an incumbent’s favor, but in the egregious case of Joe Wilson, perhaps not. His outburst spurred many contributions to his likely opposition candidate in 2010.

It may be late in the game, but maybe Democrats should to respond with a weapon similar to the one launched on them. Such a strategy may be hard to swallow, since it is so disingenuous, but it has proven remarkable effective for the Republicans. After all, if Republicans are going to charge as truth things that could happen, why should not Democrats and the Administration feel free to do the same? Of course, it would have the effect of burning bridges with the Republicans, but heck, Republicans have already burnt the bridges! What is the point of reconstructing the bridge of bipartisanship on the Democratic side if the Republicans are unwilling to also reconstruct their side? As I noted recently, bipartisanship is now perceived as for losers.

Perhaps it is time to marshal forces like MoveOn.org in a deliberate disinformation campaign. What would it look like? Here are some lies that, like the Republican lies, could be true, if not now then in Democrats’ imaginations but based on not wholly unreasonable inferences:

  • The Republican Party has a master plan to destroy Medicare and Medicaid.
  • Republicans hate poor people and want them to die young. Their opposition to health care reform is all about killing these Democrats to create a new Republican majority.
  • Republicans also want to destroy the Social Security system because they see it as just more socialism.
  • Republicans hate all but wealthy senior citizens. They want to destroy Medicare so their access to high quality care is unrestrained. If this means that other seniors die prematurely, that’s okay.
  • Republicans are racists who want to deport African Americans back to Africa and send all Hispanics back to their native countries.

Like Republican lies such as the death panel lie, these lies sound a bit crazy, but not so crazy to not have a whiff of believability to them. For example, it is easy to find quotes by Glenn Beck or Pat Buchanan suggesting they are racists. It is also easy to find far-right members of Congress, like Ron Paul, who really are in favor of getting rid of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  The reason a smear so often works is because you really only need one egregious example to infer the truth about an entire class. In this sense, these lies are more credible than those Republicans have uttered. Since Republican lies have proven good at putting Democrats on the defensive, it is likely these lies would stick like superglue to Republicans. After all, their recent stints in power have left them with little credibility and their approval numbers are in the gutter. Moreover, the lies would keep Republicans busy explaining why the lies are not true, essentially taking the wind from their sails, as their lies did to Democrats at many town halls this summer.

In reality, it is not Republicans whose votes are needed. They will be opposed to it, no matter how much Obama and Democrats try to sweeten it for them. It is Democrats, particularly those Democrats that represent rather conservative districts and states, who are scared. I see it here in Virginia, a purple state. Senator Jim Webb is calling for more time for discussion and debate on health care reform, as if the last fifteen years have not been enough. Senator Mark Warner is being cautious and hedgy, and in particular seems to be backing away from supporting a public option.

Outspoken citizens at town halls are disproportionately influencing both senators. Numerous polls, such as this New York Time poll, show that the public option is strongly supported by a majority of Americans. Democrats have to summon the nerve to vote the will of their constituents. If they do, they will be rewarded by reelection because they will be seen as working for their constituents for a change. However, capitulation to a loud minority will only help ensure that Democrats reenter minority party status far sooner than need be.

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