by Matthew Casper
Along with the rest of the nation, I have been inundated this week by the media coverage of yet another instance of President Donald J. Trump's casual relationship with the truth. Whether on TV, radio, or the Internet, not a day has passed where another ridiculous chapter been well-chronicled and analyzed. While the entire Administration's political staff has been tasked with sometimes laughably backing the President's lies (and gaslighting the media), some of the most critical issues to face humanity have been under assault by the behind-the-scenes cabal that increasingly threatens the very future of the world. (And I can't believe that I even have to write that.)
Ben and the entire team at The Daily Banter have continued to cover the budgetary and policy shenanigans that have shocked the conscience of those paying attention. However, it seems that one of the major organs of our body politic that should be pushing back on the untruths and injustices is falling short. Far short. Nowhere is this more evident this week than in the area of "Trumpcare," or the Republican plan to gut Barack Obama's legacy.
It should be pretty simple. Paul Ryan and the House GOP put forward -- after a process that wouldn't get greenlit as an old Pink Panther movie -- a bill they dubbed the American Health Care Reform Act of 2017, a bill designed to give as large a tax benefit to the top earners in the country as possible while still plausibly offering cover to cynical conservatives to call it a healthcare reform bill. (Allegedly.) The conservative-aligned Congressional Budget Office released a "better than expected" assessment which exposed the bill for what it was, and Trump and Ryan's apparatchiks have since spent the better part of their days alternatively explaining why the CBO is bad and shouldn't be believed; why the CBO's forecast was a great thing; why this isn't a big deal because it's just a negotiating document; why this is a huge deal and the only legislation that will get a vote; how everyone will ultimately be “taken care of"; how coverage really isn't the important end goal but "access to coverage" is...
It actually gets exhausting trying to keep up.
It isn't unlike other issues we've seen with Trump's candidacy and now presidency, which is why you'd expect that people would have adjusted their expectations by now.
So why is it that the mainstream media has not been able to do the very basic functions of their role when it comes to the Trumpcare disaster?
It's our free press, dubbed the Fourth Estate for its important role in preserving our freedom and system of government, which is perhaps best suited to uncover and disseminate truth. One of the only positive outcomes of the Trump Era so far is the media's return to fact-checking as a central function rather than a novel extra. (The fact that a Politifact or Factcheck.com even had to exist is a depressing topic for another time.) Even still, when it comes to the AHCA (Trumpcare), they get so caught up in unwinding the spin that they miss the obvious lines of pushback they should be focusing on. In that spirit, here is a set of questions and pushback to comments that I hope our major outlets will get around to centering on. Consider this a memo to the mainstream media.
1. We keep hearing from the GOP that it's impossible to review their plan because we are only reviewing one part. They say, "This is just one part of a three pronged approach. The second and third parts will be where costs are driven down, where access is increased, where competition will unleash the forces of the market to where insurance companies will offer exactly the kind of policies that people want and can afford. Those second and third parts aren't even developed yet so we can't believe the analysis that you are referencing now."
Response: Let me just stop you there. What specifically leads you to believe that you can accomplish any of what you've just said? If you haven't even developed the second and third prongs, how can you state with any credibility that you can achieve what you say? Why is it that you believe that we can't analyze the outcomes with the data we have while you are predicting outcomes of policies that no one has been able to develop?
Second Response: So what are the exact policies in the second and third prongs that will result in these decreased costs and better insurance benefits? We already have experience with several policy ideas such as multi-state policies or "eliminating the lines" and have analyses of previous plans that have been offered that include other standard Republican solutions, but none of that has ever shown to do what you're claiming it will. We also know that your bill doesn't fund the pieces that have worked at anywhere near the level you would need to cover the respective populations. Shouldn't the American public be able to see your entire plan and have a debate about every piece of it before you throw roughly 20% of the economy into chaos?
2. Republican lawmakers and officials continue to use the "Obamacare is in a death spiral" talking point. This has received some surface pushback, but there should be a stock response. (Especially when Paul Ryan predictably repeats it.)
Response: I'm having a hard time understanding what you mean by "death spiral." Because that phrase has a definition, and according to the American Academy of Actuaries itself, Obamacare exchanges are not in a death spiral at all. Why should we believe anything you have to say about Obamacare if you can't be honest about this fact?
3. Republicans like to refer to there being only one company in many counties offering exchange policies.
Response: That certainly is a problem. Would you then be open to the much simpler fix that would make a federal option available for people to choose to purchase, which would offer both competition and a more competitive rate for the people of your district? What would you say to the CEOs of Aetna or Anthem, who have apparently linked their participation in profitable exchanges to political favors, retaliating for the federal government not giving into unrelated demands? Would this be something you should investigate?
4. The most pervasive talking point has been that Republicans want to increase "access" to insurance.
Response: I know you like to use this term, but what exactly does "access to insurance" mean? Do you mean that people will be given the ability to purchase the same level of coverage they have now for a no-less-affordable price, or is "access" a euphemism for "people will be able to choose to buy a plan if they can afford that plan"?
5. Critics of Obamacare and its metrics also point out that not as many people are signed up as expected.
Response: Do you think you have any responsibility in the fact that fewer people took part in the Obamacare program and therefore it's more expensive for everyone? We agree that Republicans took steps to limit access to Medicaid expansion, and that you and your colleagues supported such things as eliminating the risk corridor portion of the bill, not paying agreed amounts to participant insurers, and cutting off funding for marketing and enrollment efforts. (Ed: note that this wasn't asked as a question. Journalists must stop asking politicians if they agree with facts and instead just state the facts for what they are. If someone wants to claim that the sky isn't blue, make them come out and say it on their own rather than give them cover.) So when you claim to be saving the system from Obama and the Democrats, aren't you being less than honest with your constituents about your own part in its shortcomings?
These are obviously just a starting point for questions that every American deserves answers to. Journalists must stop being afraid of losing access to government officials who lie to them and instead take seriously their responsibility to inform the public of the truth. They also must have responses prepared for the second and third level of talking point obfuscation. They need to have facts like those linked above at their fingertips and ready to unleash when the Administration seeks to prevaricate. Jake Tapper has been an example of a journalist who firmly but fairly pushes back on talking points, but even Tapper ends up majoring in unraveling lies rather than identifying facts about policy. Jake and other journalists who care about reality should stop shying away from poking holes in talking points, especially when those talking points are repeated nightly by in-house "experts" hired to do nothing more than toe the party line. Truth must carry a higher value than simply letting every voice be heard.
And we need that truth now more than ever.