Last year, PolitiFact, a widely cited “fact-checking” project of the Tampa Bay Times, awarded its “Lie of the Year” to Republicans who said that the health-care law President Barack Obama had signed amounted to a “government takeover” of the field.
This year, the uncoveted prize has gone to Democrats who said that Republicans had voted to “end Medicare” by voting for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget.
PolitiFact doubtless regards its having criticized both Republicans and Democrats as evidence of its evenhandedness and concern for truth. And I am sure that they are indeed calling things as they see them without regard to party. But PolitiFact often seems unaware that the same facts can be interpreted in different ways, with neither interpretation qualifying as a lie. Here is a different interpretation of its evenhandedness: PolitiFact was wrong last year and this year — in each case injecting a little poison into the political system in the name of cleaning it up.
Start with this year’s winning lie. Liberals insist that the Ryan plan is fairly characterized as ending Medicare because it replaces the existing program with a very different (and, they believe, inferior) one. Under Medicare as it is today, the federal government pays set fees for most medical services that senior citizens receive. Under the Ryan plan passed by the House of Representatives, senior citizens would instead pick among coverage plans offered by companies, with the federal government paying part or all of the premium. Nobody, pro or con, thinks this plan would be a minor tweak to Medicare.
On the other hand, saying Republicans want to “end Medicare” can be misleading. People who hear the phrase might think that under the Ryan plan senior citizens would have to get medical care on their own, with no help from the federal government. That is a misimpression, and it is one that Democrats have an interest in spreading.
Similarly, Democrats have accurately said that the Republican plan would involve cutting health-care spending for the elderly — which yields the misleading impression that they would cut spending on today’s elderly when only the elderly of a decade from now would actually be affected.
Republicans should tell the parts of the story the Democratic catchphrases omit, and so should media organizations such as PolitiFact. But that’s not the same thing as calling the Democrats liars for employing a characterization that many of them sincerely believe is fair, and that isn’t so much false as arguable.
Last year it was the Republicans who were smeared. PolitiFact insists it’s “simply not true” that the Democratic health-care law is a government takeover of health care because “it is, at its heart, a system that relies on private companies and the free market.” The government “will not seize control of hospitals or nationalize doctors.”
Let us stipulate that any government health-care policy falls on a continuum with laissez faire at one end and single-payer close to the other end (which would be “nationalized doctors,” whatever that would mean). Surely the point at which you have moved from a mostly free-market system to a mostly government-controlled one is a subjective matter that depends largely on one’s political philosophy.
Obamacare is a federal law that converts health insurance into a product that nobody would voluntarily buy and then forces everyone to buy it; that forces a change in the basic business model of every private insurance company; and that seeks to impose sweeping changes on the practice of American medicine by, for example, promoting “accountable care organizations.”
This policy may be good or bad. It is certainly possible for a conservative or libertarian to consider it, in good faith, a government takeover behind a private-sector facade. (I have never, incidentally, read or seen an advocate of Obamacare even attempt to explain why this arrangement, in which insurance companies are treated essentially as public utilities, is superior to a single-payer system with no such facade.)
One of the worst features of contemporary politics is the tendency — found on the right, on the left and in between — to label our opponents liars, often without a shred of evidence that the person we’re attacking is saying something he knows to be false. PolitiFact makes that problem worse, not better, by giving a supposedly authoritative imprimatur to such loose accusations.
The reason we have politics at all is that we disagree, sometimes deeply, about how to promote the common good, and we need a peaceful and productive way to resolve or at least manage these disagreements. We disagree about how to improve health care, and we disagree about how each other’s proposals to change it should be characterized. The pretense of PolitiFact, and other media “fact checkers,” is that many of our political disputes have obvious correct answers on which all reasonable people looking fairly at the evidence can agree — and any other answer is “simply not true.”
This pretense really is false, and like dishonesty, it is corrosive.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.