More Bad Republican Form

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[UPDATED with NRSC response.]

About a month ago, a Republican National Committee mailer surfaced, showing that the party had sent out a bogus “poll.” The poll asked recipients if they were concerned that Democrats would pass health care reform that would deny Republicans treatment because they were Republicans. This ridiculous and false notion, the mailer said, “has been suggested” by unknown forces. When I called the RNC for comment, a spokesman admitted the shameless ploy had been “inartfully worded.”

Now comes word, via Sam Stein at Huffington Post, that the National Republican Senatorial Committee is trying to fool Americans with the same trick. Their bogus “poll” asks:

Are you concerned that health care rationing could lead to:

23. Denial of treatment in cases where the patient’s prospects are deemed not good?
24. A “lottery” system of determining who will get priority treatment?
25. A “quota” system which would determine who would get treatment on the basis of race or age?

Needless to say, none of these things have been proposed in either house of Congress. None of them will pass. The mailer also suggests that the following ideas are “up for debate” in Congress over the coming weeks, including whether or not the government gets to:

• Pick who is “eligible” for certain medical procedures? • Pick your doctor for you? • Restrict certain medical procedures on the basis of age? • Put strict price controls on medicine and drugs? • Penalize you for choosing to see a private doctor • Seriously undermine private health care insurers who currently serve tens of millions of Americans?

In a just, fully functioning Democratic debate, there would be consequences for such fearmongering by a major political party. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who signs the direct mail piece, would actually be forced to either defend the document, by backing up the claims with actual evidence that these claims are in any way relevant to the current discussion, or he would be discredited as someone willing to fool people–not to mention the elderly–for political advantage.

But this is not a fully functioning Democratic system. I have nonetheless, asked the NRSC for comment. I am told I will get a response, which I will post promptly.

UPDATE: Brian Walsh a spokesman for the NRSC did call me back, and defended the mailer, not as a description of any of the Democratic plans, but rather as an open-ended musing on possible health care reform ideas. “It simply poses questions,” said Walsh. “In looking at it, it doesn’t say definitely what the president’s health care plan is.” Walsh added that no one knows what the final Obama health care legislation might contain. “He has not put forward legislative text,” he said. “We have no idea what the Democratic bill is going to look like.”

So in other words, Walsh is maintaining that the most alarming parts of the faux poll do not describe anything that Democrats or Obama has proposed, but rather describe things that could still be proposed at some point in the future to surprise everybody. Needless to say, it is rather unlikely–call it completely inconceivable–that Obama or Democratic leaders would introduce an 11th-hour amendment to deny health care to Americans based on race. What may be more interesting is the tactic at play. This is another version of a “The Great Unknown” attack on Obama, a technique I have previously described, in which opponents choose to critique Obama not for what he is doing, but for what is unknown about his actions or what he might do.

UPDATE 2: Walsh emails to protest that if I am getting in the fact-checking game I ought to be bipartisan (post-partisan?) about it. And I am happy to oblige. One canard from Obama that Walsh points to was the president’s claim a few weeks back that his Republican opponents wanted to do “nothing” to deal with health care. Here was what Obama said in Cincinnati, at a Labor Day rally:

I’ve got a question for all these folks who say, you know, we’re going to pull the plug on Grandma and this is all about illegal immigrants — you’ve heard all the lies. I’ve got a question for all those folks:  What are you going to do? (Applause.)  What’s your answer?  (Applause.)  What’s your solution?  (Applause.)  And you know what?  They don’t have one.  (Applause.)  Their answer is to do nothing.  Their answer is to do nothing.

This is not true. House Republicans, for example, have a short document laying out some principles they would back to reform health care. It can be read here. It is not legislation. But it is also not nothing.

One other note about this sort of back and forth. Back during the 2008 campaign, I often got angry emails from the camps of Obama and John McCain whenever I wrote a post saying something they were claiming was either false or woefully misleading. (I got many angry comments as well.) Often the protests amounted to this: If you are going to point out one guy’s deceptions, why aren’t you pointing out the other guy’s deceptions? And they sometimes had a point. Both sides were being deceptive at times, and my job for TIME does not allow me to be a full-time fact checker, comprehensively scanning the horizon for each fib and every exaggeration. But that said, I also always thought that this fairness argument was also a bit disingenuous, since it suggested that I could be a less biased reporter if I just stopped trying to call out the falsehoods or, worse, that the fact of one guy’s deception justified another guy’s deception.

This sort of dialogue also, inevitably, led to another critique: If I pointed out that both sides sometimes deceived, I was somehow engaging in false equivalence. (A claim that was, I believe, misapplied last week to the TIME cover story on Glenn Beck; I would like to come back to this later, when I have more time.) It is true that at times, however defined, one party may engage in more misinformation than the other party. And to the extent that one party’s sins are claimed to be forgiven by another party’s sins, this should be pointed out. Some sins are also bigger than others, though this subjective call is sometimes difficult to make. But I have yet to be convinced that any of these reasons should stop me from pointing out poisonous misinformation in the political debate, even if I do it by necessity in a scatter shot manner. And so, I would just conclude by saying that Obama’s false statement in Cincinnati does not excuse the NRSC’s deceptive mailer. They are both bad form. Furthermore, the claim that I have just falsely drawn equivalence between the two deceptions does not change the original sins. In both cases, the utterances disrespected our public debate, something that happens, alas, with some regularity.

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