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What white lab coats can't cover up

Stunt physicians, heal thyselves

Republicans may not know exactly why they shut down the government; they may not know what they hope to get out of this fiasco; and they may have no idea how to end this mess. But don't worry, they have enough hashtags and p.r. theatrics to last a lifetime.

Benjy Sarlin highlighted one stunt on Capitol Hill yesterday that struck me as especially amazing.

Republicans put on their lab coats, grabbed their stethoscopes and said it's time to fund the National Institute of Health. The government shutdown, however, must continue.

Yes, every House Republican with a background in medicine showed up at a press stunt yesterday, wearing lab coats and stethoscopes, to show their support for a measure that would end the government shutdown for the National Institutes of Health, but leave nearly every other part of the government closed.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was on hand to lead the event -- he wore a suit -- and was asked why he doesn't just pass the Senate's spending bill that enjoys bipartisan support, which would open the NIH and the rest of the government. "I think the Speaker and I have both said that the Republican position is we believe we should fund this government, but we also believe that there should not be any special treatment for anyone," Cantor said.

Right, which is why Cantor supports special treatment for the funding parts of the government Republicans like, but nothing else.

And while I can appreciate political theatrical games as much as the next guy, there was something about this stunt in particular that struck me as problematic.

The point of the theatrics was Republicans pushing a specific message: they may have shut down the government, but they're willing to help the NIH, because medical research is popular with the public. Plus, this was intended to exploit the pseudo-gaffe from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday.

But Jay Bookman cut through the nonsense quite nicely.

Let's pretend that Reid actually did say and mean what he is accused of saying. If I understand this correctly, conservatives believe that this imaginary child with cancer has some kind of right to government-funded health care through NIH, and that the heartless Reid is denying him or her this government-funded treatment. Do I have that right?It gets better: Under sequestration budget cuts that President Obama and his fellow Democrats have begged the Republicans to reconsider, the NIH has been forced to slash $1.7 billion from its 2013 budget. It was forced to cancel 700 research grants to scientists doing cutting-edge work. And it was forced to deny admission to the NIH Clinical Center to some 750 real-life, actual patients. If it is heartless and out-of-touch to deny treatment to one cancer patient, what do you say to a party that denies it to 750? If left unaddressed, sequestration's impact on the NIH will be even more profound in fiscal 2014.And of course, even that doesn't begin to plumb the true depths of hypocrisy. While conservatives accuse Reid of callous heartlessness by denying government-funded health care to a single imaginary kid with cancer, they battle to deny health insurance to 30 million of our fellow Americans.

We've talked many times about Republican hypocrisy surround the 2009 Recovery Act (also known as the stimulus). GOP lawmakers had a nasty habit: on the one hand, they would condemn the investments and insist the funds wouldn't create jobs, and on the other, they would beg for Recovery Act money to be spent on their constituents and then show up for the ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

This lab-coat stunt, however, strikes me as even more problematic. Republicans aren't trying to take credit for a policy they opposed; they're instead pretending to champion medical and scientific benefits they're eager to cut.

As Sam Stein has documented brilliantly, the sequestration cuts Republicans are eager to keep have been devastating to the NIH this year. Where have the GOP lawmakers in lab coats been as research has been gutted? They've been demanding that these cuts stay in place.

In other words, the lawmakers trying to position themselves as the NIH's champions are literally the very same lawmakers who've undermined the NIH's work. We're not supposed to notice, however, because the key to the Republicans' public-relations campaign is widespread ignorance.