The Lie of the Year

THE LIE OF THE YEAR…. In late 2009, PolitiFact named Sarah Palin’s “death panels” garbage the Lie of the Year. It was a well-deserved honor.

As 2010 comes to an end, it’s time for PolitiFact’s editors to bestow the award on this year’s biggest whopper, and this time, it’s another bogus Republican line on health care reform.

In the spring of 2009, a Republican strategist settled on a brilliant and powerful attack line for President Barack Obama’s ambitious plan to overhaul America’s health insurance system. Frank Luntz, a consultant famous for his phraseology, urged GOP leaders to call it a “government takeover.”

“Takeovers are like coups,” Luntz wrote in a 28-page memo. “They both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom.”

The line stuck. By the time the health care bill was headed toward passage in early 2010, Obama and congressional Democrats had sanded down their program, dropping the “public option” concept that was derided as too much government intrusion. The law passed in March, with new regulations, but no government-run plan.

But as Republicans smelled serious opportunity in the midterm elections, they didn’t let facts get in the way of a great punchline. And few in the press challenged their frequent assertion that under Obama, the government was going to take over the health care industry.

That last line seems especially important. Plenty of reporters were responsible when it came to the “death panels” nonsense — though much of the public ended up believing it anyway — but the “government takeover” baloney simply became the standard Republican response to the entire policy initiative. News outlets used it routinely, with almost no scrutiny, in the he-said-she-said reporting that’s become the American norm.

But reality is stubborn, and the “government takeover” claim is demonstrably false, whether it was called out by the media or not. PolitiFact quoted Jonathan Oberlander, a professor of health policy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, explaining, “The label ‘government takeover” has no basis in reality, but instead reflects a political dynamic where conservatives label any increase in government authority in health care as a ‘takeover.’ ”

Many Republicans who used the line were no doubt aware of this. The point of the attack was not to point out a problem with the Affordable Care Act, but to fool the public into believing nonsense, which in turn would create opponents of health care reform out of those who benefit from it. The tactic was about deception through repetition, not debate.

And good lord was it repetitious. PolitiFact “sought to count how often the phrase was used in 2010 but found an accurate tally was unfeasible because it had been repeated so frequently in so many places. It was used hundreds of times during the debate over the bill and then revived during the fall campaign.”

Incoming House Speaker John Boehner’s website, for example, uses the phrase more than 90 times. The RNC’s site features it more than 200 times.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) noted, “There was a uniformity of Republican messaging that was disconnected from facts. The sheer discipline … was breathtaking.”

Quite right. What Republicans lack in policy knowledge, decency, integrity, and veracity they compensate for with remarkable message discipline, repeating the same lie over and over again, practically in unison. They do this because it works — much of the country now believes the lie.

Best of all, the fact that the “government takeover” line has been deemed the Lie of the Year will have absolutely no bearing on GOP rhetoric going forward. It follows a familiar pattern: (1) Republicans make a policy claim; (2) objective evidence makes clear that the Republican claim is demonstrably false; (3) Republicans repeat the claim anyway, hoping the public won’t know the difference. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Still, the award is well deserved, and kudos to PolitiFact for making a wise choice.