August will be a liar's month, breeding conspiracy theories and falsehoods out of the cynical opposition to health-insurance reform. President Obama's invitation to bipartisanship has been answered by Republicans with expedient delay and a rising cacophony of fear-mongering. South Carolina's retrograde Sen. Jim DeMint explained their purposes perhaps more plainly than his like-minded colleagues would have wished: "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo," DeMint said. "It will break him."
With the political stakes so high, Republicans are willing to stoop very low. The problem is that reform is inevitably complex—and the opposition can opportunistically cherry-pick and distort its individual provisions. The fear-mongering ranges from the false claim that tax increases on the wealthy, included in the House bill, will devastate small businesses—in fact, 96 percent would pay nothing more—to the simplistic fraud that Medicare reforms equal cuts in Medicare benefits. Meantime, the lies multiply about government "bureaucrats" stifling individual choice or rationing care.
The ugliest smear of all is that Obama's proposed reform, in the words of the reliably demagogic House Republican leader John Boehner, "may start us down a treacherous path to government-sponsored euthanasia." The charge has been taken up by a rogues' chorus of intentionally misleading critics. One of them is Betsy McCaughey, who gained fame penning an error-riddled attack on ClintonCare before moving up to become lieutenant governor of New York—a position she handled with such flaky abandon that Republican Gov. George Pataki dropped her from the ticket. Among Republican health-care critics, however, she passes for credible.
McCaughey contends that the bill "would make it mandatory that ... every five years, people in Medicare have a required session that will tell them how to end their lives sooner." The counseling is not mandatory; the legislation simply provides an option for seniors or the terminally ill to consult on their choices, enabling them to decide which medical interventions they do or don't want at the end of their lives. It gives them a right that millions of Americans already exercise—to refuse treatments that prolong their pain and degrade their autonomy.
The effort to use this provision to terrify the elderly has predictably been taken up by Randall Terry, the extremist foe of a woman's right to choose, who now crassly traduces the President's health reform as an attempt to "kill Granny." Not for the first time, one has to wonder whether Terry is less interested in the right to life than in the Republican right to rule.
As the mentally and morally unhinged crawl out of the Republican woodwork, GOP congressional leaders tolerate and even propagate their scare tactics. Why? Because Republicans can't afford to argue their real views. Representative Roy Blount, their former House Whip, let the truth slip out when he fervently denounced Medicare: "It has never done anything to make people more healthy ... government should never have gotten in the health-care business," he said. Now, there's a platform capable of losing virtually every elderly voter for a generation.
The Republicans' tawdry performance on health reform is the symptom of a deeper problem. Their politicians are increasingly captives or in some cases acolytes of fringe movements fueled by resentment and sustained by a malign incomprehension—how could this African-American be president? The "birther" cranks now include eleven GOP House members who've signed on to a resolution requiring that presidential candidates produce their birth certificates to prove their eligibility for office.
The birthers are a reincarnation of the Birchers of the 1960s, the fanatics who never succeeded in convincing the country that Dwight Eisenhower was "a conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy"—or that social advances like Medicare were a nefarious socialist plot. The Birchers were noisy, but mostly shunned, even by the most conservative Republicans in Congress.
Today's fringe is more dangerous because so many in the GOP echo its excesses. Indeed, only 42 percent of Republicans in a recent poll believed that Barack Obama was born in the United States. For the party's leaders, the birthers' fable may be a fiction too far; but their ideological cousins, the tea baggers and health-reform liars, are the rotten foundation on which the party currently rests.
They will be heard in August whe the scare stories multiply. But what matters is how Democratic senators react to all this propaganda. Along with the public, they are its real targets. If they panic, health care is lost. But it won't be President Obama who's broken by the defeat; as the economy recovers, he'll probably be a safe bet for reelection. Instead, Democrats in Congress would pay the price for the defeat of health care in the looming midterms—which is just what happened in 1994.
I think Democrats will remember that history because they surely don't want to repeat it. In the Senate, Democrats can enact their health bill without a single Republican vote if they need to—through the filibuster-proof process of budget reconciliation. When the lies of August have withered, they may have to do exactly that. Otherwise, in lieu of health -are reform, we will see the re-formation of the Gingrich coalition in the 2010 election.