CREATING A STRONG INCENTIVE TO LIE…. Following up on the earlier item about the new NBC News poll, the results generally point to widespread “doubts” about health care reform. But the closer one looks, the more it’s apparent the doubts are driven by confusion and gullibility.

One of the reasons why it has become tougher is due to misperceptions about the president’s plans for reform.

Majorities in the poll believe the plans would give health insurance coverage to illegal immigrants; would lead to a government takeover of the health system; and would use taxpayer dollars to pay for women to have abortions — all claims that nonpartisan fact-checkers say are untrue about the legislation that has emerged so far from Congress.

Forty-five percent think the reform proposals would allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care for the elderly.

That also is untrue: The provision in the House legislation that critics have seized on — raising the specter of “death panels” or euthanasia — would simply allow Medicare to pay doctors for end-of-life counseling, if the patient wishes.

It’s hard to overstate how difficult, if not impossible, it is to have a meaningful national policy discussion when one side launches an aggressive misinformation campaign, and the public struggles to separate fact from fiction.

In this case, 55% believe illegal immigrants will get coverage; 54% believe there will be a “government takeover” of the health care system; 50% expect to see taxpayer-financed abortions, and 45% believe reform will “allow government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly.”

That last one is especially jarring. If the poll is accurate, nearly half the country seriously believes government officials seek the authority to pull the plug on grandma. That’s insane, and it points to a political discourse that’s badly broken.

But more than anything, it creates an enormous incentive to lie, blatantly and repeatedly, to the public. There are no real penalties, and the number of Americans who’ll believe nonsense skews the debate in the liars’ direction.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.