Winning a debate by quashing scrutiny

Updated
A sign at an Affordable Care Act outreach event in Los Angeles, California, September 28, 2013.
A sign at an Affordable Care Act outreach event in Los Angeles, California, September 28, 2013.
Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters
In her party’s official response to the State of the Union a few weeks ago, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the House Republican Conference chair, shared an anecdote about “Bette in Spokane,” the latest in a series of “Obamacare victims.” As is usually the case, within a day or two, the story was debunked.
 
Once McMorris Rodgers realized her story was wrong, the congresswoman, instead of apologizing, tried to go on the offensive. “It’s sad partisan politicians are attacking Bette,” she argued.
 
In reality, no one had “attacked” the woman in the story. Rather, McMorris Rodgers’ anecdote was fact checked and proven to be wrong. To suggest that scrutinizing suspect claims is somehow improper is absurd, but that was nevertheless the congresswoman’s reaction.
 
It was apparently a sign of things to come.
 
Last week, the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity launched a new attack ad targeting Rep. Gary Peters, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Michigan. The spot features Julie Boonstra, a Michigan woman who’s paying less money for better insurance without having to change doctors, but who was nevertheless presented in the ad as yet another ACA victim.
 
Peters, not surprisingly, believes AFP should provide more information to bolster the claims in its ad. The right, no longer willing to defend the deceptive commercial, has decided to attack Peters.
U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., wants to be a United States senator, but he has a problem. He’s engaged in a “war on women” – make that a single woman – whom he’s trying to silence because he doesn’t like the story she has to tell. […]
 
Julie Boonstra deserves a medal for what she is doing. Peters should hang his head in shame.
It’s a fascinating rhetorical gambit, worth appreciating for its rare combination of audacity and mendacity. What’s more, it’s increasingly becoming the standard response to one of the right’s more glaring problems in the health care debate: all of the conservatives’ evidence keeps falling apart.
 
Let’s say you have a movement of sorts and your goal is to deliberately tear down the nation’s health care system, no matter the consequences. Let’s also say you have the bright idea of using anecdotal evidence to highlight “victims” in order to prove how awful the system is, only to have pesky reporters discover that all of your evidence is bogus and the victims haven’t really been victimized at all.
 
At this point, you have a few choices. You could, for example, find a new hobby and stop trying to prevent Americans from having access to affordable health care. Or you could cast a new line, hoping to find some elusive, legitimate horror stories that won’t be debunked a day or so later.
 
But these are strategies based on conventional thinking. What you really need is a very different kind of plan: one in which you keep presenting bogus anecdotes, but discourage those who know what they’re talking about from pointing out your errors. What you want is to promote misleading propaganda with impunity – more mendacity, less scrutiny.
 
And how do you do that? By lashing out angrily against those noting the facts. Those who recognize the AFP’s Boonstra ad as misleading are obviously attacking a woman with cancer and should be ashamed of themselves – or so the story goes.
 
I suppose it’s clever, in an Alice in Wonderland sort of way, but it’s no way to have a credible policy debate. Indeed, it seems some of these conservatives are effectively giving up on the very idea of a serious discourse – they not only want to present misleading anecdotes, they also want to intimidate those who might dare to note reality by accusing them of being heartless bullies.
 
As Greg Sargent put it the other day, many on the right have essentially declared “that the emotional content of these victims’ stories should shield such ads from scrutiny.” Fact-checking suspect claims “will be met with charges of insensitivity to the victims.”
 
I guess it’s easier than honesty.
 
Postscript: The Wall Street Journal ran a piece yesterday arguing that the Affordable Care Act cost a woman her cancer medication. The piece was quickly embraced by the right, but it was debunked by Michael Hiltzik a few hours later.
 
If recent history is any guide, this means Hiltzik should expect to be accused of not caring about people with cancer. Sorry, Mike.
 

Affordable Care Act and Obamacare

Winning a debate by quashing scrutiny

Updated