PUTTING A ‘PREMIUM’ ON THE TRUTH…. At last week’s health care reform summit hosted by the White House, there was a key and contentious point that came up very early on. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) argued, in the Republicans’ opening statement, that the CBO found that health care premiums would go up under the Democrats’ proposal. President Obama said that was incorrect, and explained why.

Over the course of the next seven hours, Republicans kept repeating the same claim, ad nauseum, even after Obama had explained why the talking point was wrong.

Several major media outlets looked into this — it was, after all, one of the bigger areas of debate — and the independent fact-checks concluded that the president was right, and Alexander and his GOP cohorts were wrong.

And since the fact-checking, what have Republicans done? They’ve repeated the exact same claim as if it hadn’t been corrected.

On ABC yesterday, Alexander said — four times — that reform “raises insurance premiums.” Today, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (R) appeared on MSNBC and said the same thing.

“Despite what somebody has told you, the Congressional Budget Office says that health insurance premiums will go up under the Obama plan.”

And this, in a nutshell, is why having policy debates with conservative Republicans is akin to banging one’s head against a desk.

In a normal, sensible debate, one side might make a provocative claim. The other side can challenge the claim, and provide evidence. If it’s proven false, the first side moves on to some other claim. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But that’s not how arguments with Republicans work. They make claims that aren’t true, and after being corrected, repeat those claims again anyway.

“The CBO says your plan will increase premiums.”

“Actually, that’s not correct, and here’s why. It takes a little effort to understand the policy details here, but the bottom line is that the CBO found that premiums would in fact go down, not up. Your argument is based on a misunderstanding and draws a conclusion that’s the opposite of the truth.”

Oh yeah? Well, the CBO says your plan will increase premiums.”

It’s not limited to the argument about premiums. Again and again, it boils down to a debate in which Republican leaders simply don’t seem to understand what’s being said.

Reasonable observers can have a hearty argument over whether Republicans aren’t smart enough to understand the issue, or aren’t honest enough to discuss the issue in good faith. I have my suspicions, but I guess we’ll never know for sure whether these folks aren’t very bright, or are pretending to be not very bright — whether they say things that are wrong by accident or on purpose.

But either way, why even have the conversation?

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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.