The standard Swiftboating strategy

THE STANDARD SWIFTBOATING STRATEGY…. It’s a painful pattern. Confronted with a policy debate or electoral campaign, conservatives tend to have a reflexive, go-to strategy: lie a whole lot and hope Americans buy it. We’re obviously seeing the same strategy again now, as the debate over health care reform continues, but it’s certainly not new.

Jonathan Cohn ponders the possibility, though, that’s it’s worse now.

It’d be one thing if the lunatics on the right had a coherent argument for why these initiatives might be ineffective or counterproductive. But they don’t even bother to acknowledge them, preferring instead to throw out scare quotes like this one from Palin: “Who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course.”

Of course, not all conservatives stoop to this level. You can have a rational, if still contentious, debate over health reform with the likes of Stuart Butler (who studies health policy at the Heritage Foundation) or Gail Wilensky (who ran Medicare for George H.W. Bush). But Butler, Wilensky, and others like them aren’t driving the conversation right now. Palin, Bachmann, and their allies are.

We’re stuck in what Josh Marshall has called a “nonsense feedback loop” — a conversation in which Zeke Emanuel wants to kill grandma, health care reform is bad for the people who can’t get health care, and Stephen Hawking has been snuffed out by the British National Health System. Instead of arguments that are unrelated to reality, we’re getting arguments that are the very opposite of reality….

Maybe this really is worse than what we’ve seen before.

Maybe. The lies from the last health care debate were constant and crazy. Indeed, if we think about the lies from Bush’s Social Security initiative, they’re pretty remarkable.

But we can go back further. In 1961, Ronald Reagan said Medicare, if it became law, would lead federal officials to dictate where physicians could practice medicine, and open the door to government control over where Americans were allowed to live. In fact, Reagan warned that if Congress passed Medicare, there was a real possibility that federal officials would control where all Americans go and what they do for a living.

Policy Swiftboating, in other words, has been around for a while.

That said, I’m sympathetic to Cohn’s notion that we really are seeing the worst of the worst right now, in large part because there are new and effective mechanisms in place to disseminate blatant lies at incredible speeds, and that infrastructure just didn’t exist before. It’s easier, in other words, for more people to tell more lies than ever before, and right-wing activists are taking full advantage of the opportunity.