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BETSY MCCAUGHEY ALL OVER AGAIN! Deja vus are widely found as we get our butts kicked—again: // link // print // previous // next //

Bob Schieffer rolls over and dies: Last Sunday, we made a point of watching Face the Nation. Charles Grassley was going to be a guest. We wondered if Bob Schieffer would challenge the GOP grandee about the things he had said in Iowa.

Answer: No.

Confronted with Grassley’s disgraceful misstatements, Bob Schieffer rolled over and died. Schieffer, your capital’s supposed nicest guy, rolled over and died for Chuck Grassley.

Surely, everyone has seen at least some of what Grassley said. On August 12, in an outdoor appearance in Winterset, Iowa, he made the following statement to a crowd of 300 people. These were truly disgraceful remarks. Apparently, the remarks were simply too disgraceful for a certain host to acknowledge:

GRASSLEY (8/12/09): I won’t name people in Congress, or people in Washington. But there’s some people that think it’s a terrible problem that grandma’s laying in the hospital bed with tubes in her and, and think that there ought to be some government policy that enters into that. I’m just on the opposite. I think that that’s a—I think that’s a family and a religious and/or ethical thing that needs to be dealt with.

And there’s some fear because in the House bill, there is counseling for end-of-life. And from that standpoint, you have every right to fear. You shouldn't have counseling at the end of life. You ought to have counseling twenty years before you're going to die. You ought to, you ought to plan these things out. And you know, I don't have any problem with things like living wills. But they ought to be done within the family. We should not have, we should not have, we should not have a government program that determines you're going to pull the plug on grandma.

Thank you all very much for coming.


Those were disgraceful remarks. (To watch Grassley’s statement, click here.) Grassley didn’t used the term “death panel,” but he may as well have. “There is counseling for end-of-life” in the House bill, he said. “And from that standpoint, you have every right to fear.” He plainly suggested that “people in Washington/people in Congress” want to “pull the plug on grandma.” (Like Joe McCarthy, he was much too fair-minded to name these people.) He seemed to say there may be a “government program” that “determines you’re going to” do that.

Along the way, Grassley misstated the simplest facts of the bill. “You shouldn't have counseling at the end of life,” he said. “You ought to have counseling twenty years before you're going to die.” But of course, the counseling in the House bill can occur as early as age 65, as soon as someone becomes eligible for Medicare. Grassley made it sound like the counseling in question only occurs right at the “end of life.” Assuming that Grassley is minimally competent, he was deeply dishonest this day.

Until he went on Face the Nation, when Schieffer rolled over and died, thus letting the grandee escape.

Just a guess: Grassley’s remarks had been criticized to the point where Schieffer felt he couldn’t ignore them. But when he played tape of what Grassley had said, he cut his tape way down. Viewers saw only a sliver of Grassley’s remarks—so tiny a fragment that Grassley could then lie his keister off about what he had meant by his statement. In his long rambling reply to Schieffer, Grassley is essentially lying—and Schieffer is positioning himself to put his feet in the air:

SCHIEFFER (8/23/09): Senator Grassley, you have talked as Senator Conrad has about a bipartisan approach. But you really caught some Democrats off guard, a couple weeks ago, when you said this the other day. Listen to this.

GRASSLEY (videotape): We should not have a government program that determines you're going to pull the plug on grandma.

SCHIEFFER: Now, Democrats say there is nothing in this legislation that would pull the plug on grandma, or even require people to discuss it. Why did you say that, Senator Grassley?

GRASSLEY: I said that because—two reasons. Number one, I was responding to a question at my town meetings. I let my constituents set the agenda. A person that asked me that question was reading from language that they got off of the Internet. It scared my constituents. And the specific language I used was language that the president had used at Portsmouth, and I thought that it was—if he used the language, then if I responded exactly the same way, that I had an opposite concern about not using end-of-life counseling for saving money, then I was answering—

SCHIEFFER: All right.

GRASSLEY: —and relieving the fears that my constituents had, and from that standpoint— Remember, you're talking about this issue being connected with a government-run program which a public option would take you with. You would get into the issue of saving money, and put these three things together and you are scaring a lot of people when I know the Pelosi bill doesn't intend to do that, but that's where it leads people to.

“I know the Pelosi bill doesn't intend to do that,” Grassley said, in his long rambling statement. (To watch the full exchange, click this.) He pretended he only said what he said because his constituents, who didn’t understand the bill, were fearful of what it contained. He was relieving their fears! But quite plainly, that wasn’t the intention of Grassley’s statement that day. Plainly, he seemed to tell his frightened constituents that they were right to be fearful about the House bill.

Just a guess: No one in Winterset thought that he’d been told that the House bill had no plug-pull provision. People in Winterset thought they’d been told that they did have something to fear.

Grassley was lying in Schieffer’s face. And Schieffer, refusing to challenge this nonsense, now put his feet in the air. He himself introduced a construction which let Grassley wriggle away:

SCHIEFFER (continuing directly): Well, that's what I was trying to get from you this morning. You're not saying that this legislation would pull the plug on grandma, you're just saying there are a lot of people out there who think that it would. Or do you want to say this morning that that is not true, that it won't do that?

GRASSLEY: It won't do that, but I wanted to explain why my constituents are concerned about it, and I also want to say that there is an $8 billion cost with that issue, and if you're trying to save money and you put an $8 billion of doctors giving you some advice at the end of life, doctors are going to take advantage of earning that $8 billion and constituents see that as an opportunity to save some money. It just scares the devil out of people.

SCHIEFFER: All right.

GRASSLEY: So that ought to be dropped.

Feet in the air, toe tag showing, Schieffer let the grandee escape. In Winterset, Grassley plainly suggested “that this legislation would pull the plug on grandma.” But so what? Schieffer let him pretend different. Grassley then offered that barely-coherent mess about doctors “tak[ing] advantage of earning that $8 billion and constituents see[ing] that as an opportunity to save some money.” In that ramble, Grassley engaged in some slick counter-messaging: In that statement, he still made it sound like voters might be right to fear that bill.

Schieffer poses as Washington’s nicest guy. In this passage, he refused to serve his function. But then, this is the man who moderated one of Bush’s debates in 2004, even though his brother, Tom Schieffer, was one of Bush’s top ambassadors—even though he himself was a long-time friend of Bush. In the past, the buddies took trips to spring training together—but the “press corps” agreed not to mention these facts. Schieffer thus ran a presidential debate in which one candidate was his personal friend.

On Sunday, Schieffer rolled over and died. One wag said that Schieffer complied with an order from a Grassley death panel.

Special report: How do we lose?

PART 3—BETSY MCCAUGHEY ALL OVER AGAIN: Melinda Henneberger was certainly right on one score (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/26/09). Barring miraculous changes, the same thing is happening all over again. Scanning the current health care debate, she pondered this puzzling, sad situation on last Thursday’s Hardball:

HENNEBERGER (8/20/09): It’s pretty amazing how quickly things have changed, when only recently we thought, you know, this was going to be a really great year for the Democrats. But I am just so astonished, most of all, that this health care debate has gotten away from Obama the way it has. I mean, this should be his greatest moment. This should be a no-brainer!


It certainly is a vindication for Hillary Clinton, when we said she could have sold it [in 1993 and 1994] if only she had consulted with people a little more, if only she’d been a little more flexible. Now it looks like the same thing is happening all over again.

“It looks like the same thing is happening all over again,” Henneberger said, voicing puzzlement. A day or two later, we thought of her comment when we reread James Fallows’ famous 1995 piece about the defeat of the Clinton health plan.

Fallows’ piece appeared in the January 1995 Atlantic Monthly (click here). It bore a sadly accurate headline: “A Triumph of Misinformation.” Regarding that misinformation, the piece carried this synopsis:

ATLANTIC MONTHLY (1/95): Most of what everyone "knows" about the demise of health-care reform is probably wrong—and, more important, so are the vague impressions people have of what was really in the Clinton plan.

The American public was badly misinformed about what was in the Clinton health plan! Before we examine the source of that misinformation, let’s marvel at how little has changed from that day to this.

Again and again, Fallows’ piece reads like something he could have written last week, about the fate of Obama’s health plan. Talk about your deja vu! Fifteen years later, little has changed, just as Henneberger said. In many ways, it’s worse than that: We seem to be reliving history.

Let’s run through some of the points of deja vu which litter Fallows’ important piece:

*Single-payer: Single-payer was ruled out at the start, Fallows wrote. “[President] Clinton was dead set against a single-payer plan, arguing that it would require sweeping new taxes and would, in effect, abolish the entire medical-insurance industry.” Sound familiar?

*Americans spend twice as much: Along the way, Clinton had to switch his “sales strategy.” Here’s where Clinton had started:

FALLOWS (1/95): Throughout his campaign Bill Clinton had emphasized the overall cost of medical care as a central evil of the U.S. system. Americans spend about twice as much money per capita on medical care as people in other developed nations, with results that are not twice as good. Whenever he was asked about cutting the budget deficit or taming the entitlements monster, Clinton said that the first and most important step was to control health-care costs.

“Americans spend about twice as much money per capita?” Seventeen years ago, as he campaigned, this is what Clinton had stressed! But according to Fallows, the administration had to switch its approach in 1994, as its efforts began to fail in the polls. According to polling, “most people...believed that the plan would drive costs up, not down”—and so the Administration adopted a pitch which stressed the benefits of the plan to the individual. In effect: “What’s in it for me?” This prefigured the change is “sales strategy” Obama presented at his July 22 press conference.

*The need for sixty votes: Good God! “The Administration's original strategy was to rush the health plan through as part of its first budget-reconciliation bill,” Fallows wrote. “The genius of this approach, little noticed by the public, is that it would have allowed the health plan to pass with a simple majority vote.” How little has anything changed? “In reality it takes sixty votes to end a filibuster,” Fallows wrote, “so Bill Clinton knew that the Senate's forty-plus Republicans could stop nearly any legislation they chose.” This plan had to be dropped, Fallows wrote. “The Senate's majority leader, George Mitchell, endorsed this strategy, but its de facto parliamentarian, Robert Byrd, objected, scuttling the plan.”

*Bright early prospects: At first, the plan’s prospects seemed good. Here, let Fallows tells you:

FALLOWS: Despite the delays and missteps, when the President finally unveiled the plan, in September of 1993, it seemed to have a good chance. "The reviews are in and the box office is terrific," the political analyst William Schneider wrote just after it was presented. "President Clinton's health care reform plan is a hit...The more people read and hear about the plan, the more they seem to like it.”

Remember the heady days of August 2008, when the late Senator Kennedy addressed a roaring Democratic convention about “the cause of my life?” Remember the early polling on health reform, in this very year?

At this point in his famous piece, Fallows began to explain how the Clinton plan died. At this point, Henneberger’s comment becomes unassailable: “Now it looks like the same thing is happening all over again.”

What happened to the Clinton health plan? For one thing, it was met by some silly objections which were politically potent. Deja vu, anybody? In one potent example, opponents claimed the plan was too long and too complex. It took to long to read the plan! The bill had too many pages!

FALLOWS: To say that the resulting package of proposals was "too complex" is like saying that an airplane's blueprint is too complicated. The Medicare system is complex. So is every competing health-care-reform plan. Most of the 1,342 pages of Clinton's Health Security Act (which I have read) are either pure legal boilerplate or amendments to existing law. Conventional wisdom now holds that the sheer bulk of the bill guaranteed its failure. The Nafta bill was just as long, and so was the crime bill that passed last summer.

The Clinton bill had too many pages! Fallows notes how phony this claim really was—but the objection worked. Fifteen years later, this same objection has been aimed at Obama’s plan—and it has proven quite potent.

But most of all, the Clinton health plan was buried under a mountain of misinformation, Fallows said. “Now it looks like the same thing is happening all over again?” In this case, even the names have remained the same in the last fifteen years!

Good God. Liberal lethargy and incompetence are tremendously powerful things! Your side of this fight is so inept, the same person who invented the bull about Clinton’s health plan has now done the same thing to Obama’s! In this passage, Fallows describes what happened in 1994. But then, the same damn thing just happened, in the past few months:

FALLOWS: Much of the problem for the plan seemed, at least in Washington, to come...from an article by Elizabeth McCaughey, then of the Manhattan Institute, published in The New Republic last February [1994]. The article's working premise was that McCaughey, with no ax to grind and no preconceptions about health care, sat down for a careful reading of the whole Clinton bill. Appalled at the hidden provisions she found, she felt it her duty to warn people about what the bill might mean. The title of her article was "No Exit," and the message was that Bill and Hillary Clinton had proposed a system that would lock people in to government-run care. "The law will prevent you from going outside the system to buy basic health coverage you think is better," McCaughey wrote in the first paragraph. "The doctor can be paid only by the plan, not by you."

George Will immediately picked up this warning, writing in Newsweek that "it would be illegal for doctors to accept money directly from patients, and there would be 15-year jail terms for people driven to bribery for care they feel they need but the government does not deem 'necessary.'" The "doctors in jail" concept soon turned up on talk shows and was echoed for the rest of the year.

These claims, McCaughey's and Will's, were simply false...

It didn't matter. The White House issued a point-by-point rebuttal, which The New Republic did not run. Instead it published a long piece by McCaughey attacking the White House statement. The idea of health policemen stuck.

Read the full piece to see how false McCaughey’s claims were in those days. (Simple answer: Very false.)

Today, George Will restricts himself to groaning misstatements about climate change. But many others have taken his place in the health care fight. As the New York Times described in this detailed piece, many others have actively pimped Betsy McCaughey’s latest misinformation. Most famously, Sarah Palin turned McCaughey’s latest nonsense into that colorful “death panel” claim. If we might borrow from Fallows’ language:

The idea of death panels has stuck.

Truly, the situation we have described is a tribute to liberal incompetence. Fifteen years later, the same damn things have happened again—executed by the very same people! McCaughey first destroyed health care in 1994. But so what? Your “liberal world” is so completely incompetent that, fifteen years later, she was able to waltz back out onto the stage and destroy health care again! Jon Stewart made her look foolish last week. But how did McCaughey still have enough credibility to lead the “triumph of misinformation” again?

More on that question to come.

Henneberger hit the nail on the had: The same thing is happening all over again, right down to the names of the players. It takes a truly incompetent movement to get taken apart this way—again, but fifteen years later! We think of the questions which appeared last week during Rick Perlstein’s on-line discussion (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/26/09). Let’s recall what two questioners asked:

Why do you suppose the Democrats are so bad at messaging and pushing back?

What (if anything) can be done to counter such ridiculous and blatant?

It isn’t just that we get our keisters kicked by “ridiculous and blatant falsehoods.” We liberals get our keisters kicked by the same ridiculous falsehoods, from the same people, at fifteen-year intervals! Fifteen years later, the very same people say the very same things. On our side , we’re still unprepared to counter—or prevent—such attacks.

Last week, Rick was asked a very good question: Why is our side so bad at this game? That may be the world’s most important question. Tomorrow: Rick’s reply.

Tomorrow—part 4: What Rick said.

Next week: Ruminations on “messaging.”