Friday Talking Points [93] -- Lies, Lies And Propaganda

Political discussions in America are fast becoming solely theological in nature.. Each side has their beliefs. Each has their tenets which they fervently defend. Much of this is done on faith.
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This column (surprisingly, from that title) is devoted almost entirely to President Obama's speech on healthcare reform to a joint session of Congress this week. But before we get to the good and the bad in Obama's speech, we've got to at least mention the Joe Wilson fracas.

The title is actually from the lyrics of a Talking Heads song ("Walk It Down," from the Little Creatures album):

I . . . I . . . I . . . I turn up the radio

Lies, lies and propaganda

I . . . gonna tell you what I need

Life, life, without surrender

It seemed particularly appropriate this week, after a member of Congress audibly called the president a liar ("You lie!") during the president's speech.

But I have to caution you, while I was pleased to see Joe Wilson become a lightning rod for all that is wrong with the lack of decorum in politics today, I have to say that both sides have a point in the whole argument.

This is due to the fact that political discussions in America are fast becoming solely theological in nature. Allow me to explain this concept. Each side has their beliefs. Each has their tenets which they fervently defend. Much of this is done on faith. And, when your entire world view is radically different than the person you're arguing with, there is very little chance of either agreement or mind-changing. It's like the Jews and the Muslims arguing not over where the boundaries of Israel and Palestine are, but over whether Moses or the Prophet were right. In other words, it is like just about every disagreement over religion you can think of -- from all of history. If my core beliefs do not agree in a factual way with your core beliefs, then we can discuss things up to a point, but once we both hit that point then we just stop listening to each other, and begin talking past each other instead. Or, even worse, shouting at each other.

This, in all honesty, is a pretty strange way to begin a column on how Democrats should spin things. The word "spin," after all, is spin itself. Its proper name is "propaganda."

So we get howling from the Left over decorum in the chamber -- conveniently ignoring some not-quite-as-bad Democratic behavior in the past, during George W. Bush speeches. We also get howling from the Left over the "lie" charge.

But the howling from the Right has a point, too. Because any Democrat condemning Wilson today for calling Obama a liar should stop and think about the fact that Obama himself was calling a lot of Republicans (not by name, but by blatant inference) liars as well, during the same speech. He did so a number of times, actually. Instead of the forceful and active-voice "You lie!" however, Obama used a more passive phraseology: "It is a lie, plain and simple."

Obama uttered this line -- which a lot of people have refrained from putting into context -- immediately before he said the following: "There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false -- the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally." This is the point where Wilson chimed in.

So there was indeed talk of lies, lies. Hence the propaganda now. Because Obama was using a little lawyer-speak there and was unclear on exactly what he was trying to say, both sides are now claiming they're right, and the other is lying. The House bill does indeed have strict language in it to bar funding illegal immigrants' health insurance. Which the Democrats point out, forcefully. But that's not what Obama actually said. He said "the reforms" will not apply to illegal immigrants. Which is false. "The reforms" is such a broad term and is not specific to merely funding that it can be interpreted however you like. So the Republicans interpret it their way, forcefully.

Now, don't get me wrong. I came out yesterday in (very lukewarm) support of the House smacking Wilson on the wrist in whatever fashion they like. It's a media-circus type of event (both Wilson's outburst and the consequences thereof), so have at it. I always love political theater, without ever taking it too seriously. Because (if you'll permit me a mixed metaphor), I know that whenever a politician publicly saddles up his or her high horse, it usually means he or she is about to ride that horse at a gallop straight down "the low road."

Politics, in other words, can get pretty surreal at times. Which is what reminded me of the Talking Heads in the first place:

Ain't no crime to believe

I took my money, I bet my life

What you see is what you get

But it sure ain't what we need

Are you sitting down? Good....

In a truly unprecedented move for this column, before we award this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week, we have to first strike a very special commendation. The unprecedented bit is that we honor today a Republican.

Because Senator John McCain -- Barack Obama's Republican opponent in last year's presidential race -- put country ahead of party this week, by immediately condemning Congressman Joe Wilson's behavior during President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress. McCain, being interviewed right after the speech, set the gold standard for Republicans (who have -- to their credit -- mostly repeated the same sentiments, after McCain's strong initial statement) in condemning Wilson's behavior. McCain, obviously unscripted and without consulting a single focus group, and mere minutes after the speech had ended, said of Wilson's outburst: "totally disrespectful -- no place for it in that setting or any other, and he should apologize immediately."

This condemnation of a member of his own party is so rare, especially among those of the Republican persuasion, that it deserves mention here. For drawing a line between what is acceptable behavior and what is most definitely not in Congress, and for not mincing words while doing so, John McCain is hereby awarded the We Know He's A Republican, But He Still Gets An Honorable Mention award, which we will call the WKHARBHSGAHM award from now on. Or maybe not, since it's even harder to type than the full thing. Ahem.

Kidding aside, this column commends Senator McCain for his remarks. Thank you, Senator, for your brave, principled, and (yes, even) "mavericky" condemnation.

And -- are you still sitting down -- we have a second such award to hand out, although this one must be called the WKSARBSSGAHM award, because the word "She" must be substituted. Former First Lady Laura Bush also deserves to be recognized by this column, for her defense of the appropriateness of President Obama to give a speech to schoolchildren. She was taking on some loudmouths in her own party by doing so, but she is a former school librarian, so I guess this was personal for her. In any case, it was a decent and noteworthy thing to do, and -- again, even though she's a Republican -- she still deserves an Honorable Mention for her defense of Obama's speech to the kids.

But enough of all this Republican love! Let's move on to our side of the aisle. Actually, we're not moving on to our side of the aisle, what we're going to do is go out towards the aisle, then make a right turn when we get there, and proceed all the way down the aisle to the center podium. Because that's where President Barack Obama stood to give his speech to Congress this week -- right up in front of everyone.

And the man knows how to give a good speech. Even his opponents begrudge him that. Wednesday, Barack Obama reminded a lot of people in this country why they voted for him. If I had to squeeze down Obama's speech into one word, I think it would have to be "reasonable." Obama looked and sounded so downright reasonable Wednesday, meaning the contrast between him and his hecklers was even more pronounced.

I think I can say without fear of being contradicted that this was Obama's best use yet of the famed bully pulpit. He has energized his party, and changed the debate from whether healthcare reform was "dead" for the year to what exactly will be in whatever bill passes. That is a pretty dramatic turnaround in the conversation, although much of the blame for that rests on the media which drives this conversation (or at least thinks they do).

For this turnaround, and for his eloquent speech Wednesday night, President Barack Obama is our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.

[Congratulate President Obama on the White House contact page to let him know you appreciate his efforts. And, while Laura Bush is "retired" from being First Lady and thus we do not wish to invade her privacy as a private citizen, we just had to also include Senator John McCain's Senate contact page, in case you want to drop him a note to say thanks.]

But, while it was an inspiring speech, in a surprise move (we're just full of them this week) we also have to award the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award to President Obama. For what the speech didn't say.

Leading up to Obama's speech, there was a demand for specifics from Democrats, Republicans, and the media. What, exactly, is Obama's healthcare reform plan? Few remember it, but the whole process started with an explicit plan from the White House, which he sent to Congress. Congress left it in the dust long ago. So it's so outdated that it desperately needed an update. What would Obama "take off the table" and what would he "draw a line in the sand" over? What would he stand up for, and what would he reject?

Not to be rude or anything, but exactly how many of those questions were actually answered by Obama's speech? He indicated he was leaning towards or away from a few things, but drew no sandy lines of which I am aware. There was plenty of intentionally-unclear language in the speech, which was open to interpretation from friends and enemies of Obama's plan. There was, in fact, no "Obama plan" at all, which was another of the criticisms voiced before the speech.

Case in point: the "public option." Did he support it, or did he "throw it under a bus" in the end? Opinions differ. Why do they differ? Because Obama was intentionally obfuscatory on the matter. Why was Obama parsing language so carefully to preserve his plausible deniability? Because he wanted different audiences to take away different things from the speech.

Actually, just on sheer technical brilliance, I have to hand it to Obama's speech on Wednesday -- I have never in my life seen such a masterful job of befuddling Washington by a single speech. I've never seen a speech that was so beautiful in oratory -- full of the type of soaring prose we all became accustomed to on the campaign trail from Obama -- but so maddeningly difficult to interpret. From everyone's reaction -- from far-lefty bloggers to right-wing politicians to "mainstream" media -- it seems that this was the Speech Of A Thousand Interpretations.

About the only thing which Obama strongly strongly defended was that this was the year to pass some bill with the label "healthcare reform," and that failure to do so was simply not an option. This was the high point of the speech, actually. It has been much missed in the debate for the past few months, and was much welcomed by Democrats and others pushing for healthcare reform. It certainly bucked up the party faithful.

Obama admirably laid out his goals, using some of the best framing on the issue that anyone's used yet. We will examine this in the next part of our program here. But he didn't quite so admirably lay out the solutions to achieve those goals. On specific issue after specific issue, he waffled or punted: How exactly, will costs come down, especially without a public option? How will people who work for small businesses (who will be exempt from punishment for not providing health insurance) be affected, if they don't qualify for the public plan (if there even is one)? Are the insurance companies just going to pass along the costs of covering pre-existing conditions and getting rid of caps on coverage? If the "time for bickering is over" and it's now the "season of action," then how can you simultaneously say "these are all constructive ideas worth exploring" and mean it? If you won't sign anything that's not deficit-neutral but that's all Congress comes up with, will you really veto it? If you charge a fee for the "most expensive policies," but this actually falls upon union members who have fought for decades for good health insurance, doesn't that mean you're breaking your promise not to tax people making under $250,000 a year (to say nothing of what the unions will say about the idea)? If the public option is expendable, then how will we "bend the curve downwards" on healthcare costs in general?

For this very deliberate obfuscation, and for not drawing any lines in the sand on any of the contentious issues Congress is currently bickering about, Barack Obama -- even though the speech was indeed a masterpiece -- has earned his Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award, we are very sorry to say.

[Contact President Obama on the White House contact page to let him know what you think of his actions.]

Volume 93 (9/11/09)

But that's not to say it wasn't a dandy speech, mind you. We're kind of on a rollercoaster of up-and-down this week, so we're hoping no reader gets mental whiplash from reading it. Our lawyers have advised us that we've already warned you to be sitting down for all this, and thus we're good to go.


Barack Obama's speech was indeed a masterpiece, even without the sandy lines, because for the first time he did an excellent job of using the English language to lay out his goals, and express his own sense of urgency into the debate. In other words, he did a good job framing the issue. About the only thing missing was what to call the public option (if it even remains). Medicare and Medicaid weren't named during the early stages of their legislative debates, either, but we simply have to come up with something better than just "the public option." You could go with something in the "Medi-" line of titles, but the only thing I could come up with is "Medicompetition" which would be immediately shortened to "Medicomp." Of course, we could go with the obvious and name it "KennedyCare," but Republicans will likely balk at that. So if anyone has any ideas for a good thing to call this notion that everyone's fighting for, let me know in the comments. Because we simply can't keep calling it "The Public Option" forever.

But I digress. Instead of the normal talking points this week, we'd like to instead highlight some excerpts from Obama's speech. Because he finally -- finally! -- started framing the issues brilliantly. Now, careful readers of this column will note that for many of these, I have proposed similar language in the past, but I refused to link to all my previous columns which urged these lines because it would simply appear too egotistical. Also, looking up all those links takes time, and I am lazy. Ahem.

But all kidding aside, here are the best examples of how to correctly speak about healthcare reform from President Obama's speech. Feel free to read the entire transcript, but these were the highlights as far as this column is concerned. These are presented unenumerated, because it was tough just narrowing the speech down to highlights, and downright impossible to cut back to a mere seven items.

So, without further ado, let's dig into Obama's speech, roughly in the order in which the excerpts appeared. All the emphasis has been added to the transcript, to point out what I feel are the key phrases within the excerpts.

"I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.

This is an excellent line, and really needs no explanation of why it's such a good line. It truly stands alone as a statement.

Obama then (and throughout the speech) went on to paint a very vivid picture. The title of this picture is: "It could happen to you." He hits this theme from a few different angles, but this is the sort of language Democrats need to use more of. Because people with insurance aren't so much scared of the insurance they have, but scared of the unknowns the future will bring. So remind them of this. Use the word "bankruptcy" as often as possible.

Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured, who live every day just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy. These are not primarily people on welfare. These are middle-class Americans. Some can't get insurance on the job. Others are self-employed, and can't afford it, since buying insurance on your own costs you three times as much as the coverage you get from your employer. Many other Americans who are willing and able to pay are still denied insurance due to previous illnesses or conditions that insurance companies decide are too risky or expensive to cover.

. . .

In just a two year period, one in every three Americans goes without health care coverage at some point. And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage. In other words, it can happen to anyone.

. . .

But the problem that plagues the health care system is not just a problem of the uninsured. Those who do have insurance have never had less security and stability than they do today. More and more Americans worry that if you move, lose your job, or change your job, you'll lose your health insurance too. More and more Americans pay their premiums, only to discover that their insurance company has dropped their coverage when they get sick, or won't pay the full cost of care. It happens every day.

. . .

We will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses, because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they get sick.

That last line is the core argument at the heart of the healthcare reform effort, and should have been the leading slogan for Democrats. Sadly, everyone has pretty much ignored it until now.

The next point is a related one -- if America does nothing, then America itself is going to go broke paying the price.

If we do nothing to slow these skyrocketing costs, we will eventually be spending more on Medicare and Medicaid than every other government program combined. Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close.

I included this one just because it is an all-purpose line for all Democrats to start using each and every time they're interviewed.

There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada's, where we would severely restrict the private insurance market and have the government provide coverage for everyone. On the right, there are those who argue that we should end the employer-based system and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.

I have to say that there are arguments to be made for both approaches. But either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the health care most people currently have. Since health care represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn't, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch.

That's so easy to slip into any answer on healthcare -- "build on what works, fix what doesn't" -- that every Democrat needs it tattooed on the insides of their eyelids, so they can see it every time they blink.

Well the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care.

This one should get a lot of play, too, and it deserves it. "The time for games has passed" is an excellent rejoinder to a whole slew of nonsense from healthcare reform opponents. Democrats should use it often in the coming weeks.

This is how large companies and government employees get affordable insurance. It's how everyone in this Congress gets affordable insurance. And it's time to give every American the same opportunity that we've given ourselves.

This is a great line, too, which reminds us all that every single politician (with the sole exception of Senator Sherrod Brown, who pays out of his own pocket on sheer principle) gets their healthcare directly from tax dollars. Meaning there is more than a little hypocrisy about someone whose insurance is paid for by your taxes telling you why you can't have the same thing they have. Point this out!

That's why under my plan, individuals will be required to carry basic health insurance -- just as most states require you to carry auto insurance.

This is going to be a tough sell, when people actually figure out what it means -- that there will be some penalty (probably on your income taxes) for not having health insurance. But the auto insurance analogy is a good one, and a good framing of the issue for the fight ahead.

Some of people's concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.

Don't be afraid to call a lie a lie. Be as forceful as you like about this. Because, even if it creates some controversy and a mini media circus, it forces the media to examine the claim -- something they are notoriously bad at doing without being pushed. And people respect standing up for what you believe in, even if they don't agree with it. So don't be afraid to call bogus claims "lies."

But an additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange. Let me be clear - it would only be an option for those who don't have insurance. No one would be forced to choose it, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance. In fact, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, we believe that less than five percent of Americans would sign up.

Really? Five percent? Then what is all the arguing about?!? This is a stunning statistic, and it is bulletproof -- because it comes from the CBO and not the White House. This is the ultimate putdown of all the "government takeover" talk. "How can five percent of a market take it over?" This is beautiful framing, and should be taken up by Democrats everywhere, immediately.

It would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities.

I've been personally saying for a few weeks now (ever since Charles Schumer started using it) that this is the best example of "government and the private sector competing successfully," and I'm glad Obama started using it instead of the post office.

And I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need.

Another one which needs no explanation. Great framing job, although it may be hard to actually make good on this promise in the out years. But for now, a great way to tie together the concept of "government bureaucrats" and "insurance company bureaucrats" in peoples' minds.

Here's what you need to know. First, I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits - either now or in the future. Period. And to prove that I'm serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don't materialize.

Another one which requires no explanation. But also, one that could come back to bite Obama later. But hey, at this point, we'll take whatever lines in the sand Obama happens to be drawing.

So don't pay attention to those scary stories about how your benefits will be cut - especially since some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past, and just this year supported a budget that would have essentially turned Medicare into a privatized voucher program.

That whole paragraph is a beaut, because it puts the money in a lot of very badly needed context. Once again, don't let Republicans get away with painting themselves as some sort of deficit hawks when they're the ones who broke the bank in the first place. People need to be reminded of this history on occasion.

But know this: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it. I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now.

This is a continuing theme -- inaction is not an option. This is the best point Obama made during the entire speech, which he returned to in a number of ways throughout.

On issues like these, Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick; and he was able to imagine0A

That whole paragraph is a beaut, because it puts the money in a lot of very badly needed context. Once again, don't let Republicans get away with painting themselves as some sort of deficit hawks when they're the ones who broke the bank in the first place. People need to be reminded of this history on occasion.

But know this: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it. I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now.

This is a continuing theme -- inaction is not an option. This is the best point Obama made during the entire speech, which he returned to in a number of ways throughout.

On issues like these, Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick; and he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance; what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent -- there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it.

This is a real trifecta of a paragraph. We've got Teddy Kennedy's memory, a very humanizing story, and the refrain of going broke when you get sick. Democrats are woefully bad at this sort of thing -- putting a human face upon what they are attempting to do. There are real, tragic human consequences to what gets done (and what doesn't get done) in Washington. This needs to be pointed out. It creates a narrative of why Democrats are fighting so hard to do something. And it does so with a story that just about anyone can relate to.

You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter - that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.

I included this excerpt because it is just about the only time (at least since Bill Clinton was around) that a Democrat actually gave a defense of their governmental philosophy. Republicans will speak about "big government" at the drop of a hat, ever since Reagan proclaimed "government isn't the solution, it's the problem." But Democrats are so cowed by this concept (also called the "tax and spend liberal" problem) that they simply don't want to talk about it. Which is not the way to win any argument. So although it's kind of off on a philosophical tangent, I have to spotlight it just because it is so rare for a Democrat to defend their concept of government.

Obama wrapped up with some beautiful imagery on the Kennedy "character of our country" phrase. All in all, an extremely well-crafted speech in terms of sheer wordsmithing. It painted a picture. It told a story. It framed things absolutely correctly. It remains to be seen whether the public will react, and how, but I don't think Obama could have done a better job of outlining why this is so important, and why doing nothing would be disastrous. Both of these have been noticeable in their absence from the Democratic side of this debate, so it was downright refreshing to hear our president do such a good job making the case for action.

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground

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