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What Betsy McCaughey Knows

X00387_9.JPGMichelle Cottle's take down of professional health-care policy liar Betsy McCaughey is deservedly vicious and unabashedly welcome. In particular, there's something sweet about the profile appearing in the New Republic, the magazine which first published McCaughey's deceptions in 1993 and thus launched her to stardom.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with McCaughey probably aren't unfamiliar with her many, many lies. In 1994, she published the influential article "No Exit," which claimed that Clinton's health-care plan would not allow you to purchase health-care services with your own money. This was debunked in one of the first provisions of the bill, which read, “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as prohibiting the following: (1) An individual from purchasing any health care services.” This year, she's famous for providing the base deceptions that led to the "death panel" nonsense, and for seeding talk radio with the idea that the stimulus bill would put your doctor under the control of the newly-created Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology. That office turned out to be a George W. Bush creation.

Few deserve to be skewered like McCaughey. In that sense, Cottle's piece is like "Inglourious Basterds" for the health wonk set. But McCaughey is not now, and arguably never was, the point. She was discredited many years ago. Conservative policy wonks like Stuart Butler and Gail Wilensky are no kinder to her deceptions than liberals like Henry Aaron and James Fallows. No editor in the country has an excuse for being unaware that she is a fraud. Yet she keeps getting published, and promoted, and her lies keep finding their target. Why?

The answer, basically, is that McCaughey is useful. She's useful to the New York Post and Fox News and Sarah Palin. She's among the best in the business at the Big Lie: not the dull claim that health-care reform will slightly increase the deficit or trim Medicare Advantage benefits, but the claim that it will result in Death Panels that decide the fate of the elderly, or a new model of medical ethics in which the lives of the old are sacrificed for the good of the young, or a government agency that will review the actions of every doctor. McCaughey isn't just a liar. She's an exciting liar.

That's not very helpful in the policy debate, but it's very useful in the media debate. It's useful first for the conservative outlets who promote it and use it to confirm their audience's biases and make their listeners feel like they're getting the inside scoop, and then for the mainstream outlets-- my paper among them, and my blog among them -- that "cover the controversy," that report on Chuck Grassley talking about "pulling the plug on grandma" and run fact-checks and reaction stories in response to Sarah Palin's looniest claims. McCaughey might be something of a uniquely deceptive individual, but she's taking advantage of a structural weakness in the system. She's figured out the media's thermal exhaust port, and pointed it out to everyone else. And she won't be the last to use it.

Photo credit: David Karp/AP.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 5, 2009; 12:24 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Awesome Star Wars metaphor at the end there. That's why I read this blog.

Posted by: y0ssar1an | October 5, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

It is really diffcult for serious people on the Left of Center to find the balance between giving too much ink and air time to people like Sarah Palin or Betsy McCaughey and letting them gain credence because their lies aren't getting debunked.

This post really gets to the issue in looking at the function she and her ilk serve for program producers and for the ideological organs like Murdoch's. But debunking isn't sufficient--the case has to be made for the liberal side in a way that grabs attention and changes minds as well. And that way isn't debunking and outing of their corporate sponsors, it is making a snappy, emotionally appealing, positive and at the same time factually accurate case for what needs to be done to give people real reform.

So why does someone like Rachel Maddow, who has a way above average brain, devote so much time to debunking the charlatans on the Right? I wish she had more wonky people like Judy Feder and Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn and less of her fellow pundit friends with predictable things to say, like David Sirota. I really start to tune those shows out when I'm not learning something new, I'm just getting my (or the host's) opinions validated.

I think the health care debate has shown that those who deride the American public as sheeple or idiots are wrong. People can be stampeded, there's no question about it, especially with a combination of fear and pseudo-patriotism. But they also have a healthy dose of common sense, and turned against the Iraq War long before DC did, and turned against the GOP health care nonsense in September as well. They are our best hope in avoiding another Vietnam in Afghansitan and, it would appear, in getting real health care. But they need more good information. This blog does a good job in supplying that, but I'd like to see outlets with bigger audiences do more of the heavy policy lifting too.

Posted by: Mimikatz | October 5, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

As Ezra points out the biggest lies and the biggest liars tend to be exciting. Really exciting. Repeating the lies and being backed by billionaires like David Koch ensure that a wide audience will hear the lies and will respond, per their already existing beliefs and prejudices.

What Ezra doesn't point out that one the most successful purveyors of the "Big Lie" in the (early) twentieth century was the Nazi and Fascist movements in Germany and Italy. Like McCaughey, both groups were backed by very wealthy individuals and corporations in the 1920s and 1930s. And like McCaughey, many of their claims and insistent lies were easily discredited. Yet they were able to gain a receptive enough audience to bring them to power. Sometimes the wealthy backers aren't shy about taking credit for inciting hatred based on outright lies: witness Rick Scott and David Koch.

The thing about the "big lie" as Adolf Hitler said in "Mein Kampf" is that they are "so colossal that no one would believe that someone could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously". And when lies get big, there is no reason to stop them from getting bigger.

It is likely that the lies will get even bigger--perhaps to the utter disbelief of Ezra and other conventional media figures. Do you think that Betsy McCaughey would hesitate to blame "government workers" or a specific ethnic/racial group as the agents/benefactors of a evil-government-run health-care dictatorship? Maybe she would, but nothing in her background indicates any level of honesty or integrity that would stop her. The same goes for her fellow lie-mongers like Scott or Koch.

Posted by: opal22 | October 5, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

I've never been a fan of compliments that just gush compliment to the author.

However, I feel I should make an exception this time. This is a great article just by itself and for linking to the TNR article that goes into greater detail about Betsy McCaughey.


Posted by: shelgreen | October 5, 2009 5:49 PM | Report abuse

I should always check the preview.

The first sentence should be.

I've never been a fan of comments that just gush compliments to the author.

Posted by: shelgreen | October 5, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

The Michelle Cottle "takedown" is so sleazy on so many fronts it's hard to know where to start. It is a gussied up version of the kind of cattiness you hear in the ladies' room. The attempt to expose McCaughey's lower class origins by vivid description of her parents' work, the dismissal of her academic achievements. So much of it is a class attack on McCaughey. The claim that everything legislation would lead to is written out in said legislation is risible. The claim that if there is no section of the legislation called "rationing", and no section called "death panels," then there will be no rationing and no one will get LESS medical care than he now does, is a fairytale for children.

Posted by: truck1 | October 6, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

How about today's profile of the Oily Taint?

Posted by: Bartolo1 | October 6, 2009 6:07 PM | Report abuse

The Mundy article is on a far higher level than the Cottle spittle. It is truly witty (" is here she dreams of deposing the president...") though its humor largely derives from the contrast between the magnitude of the goal and the small and mundane nature of the person who has the goal. It attempts to make her look like a flea on an elephant. Still, it is not simply a catty class attack like the Cottle piece. The basis of the criticism is not her parents' profession, her hair, her supposedly declasse husband, etc.

Posted by: truck1 | October 7, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

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