'Not Intended to Be a Factual Statement' Should Really Be the Official Slogan of the GOP

Recently, Speaker John Boehner asserted the following: "The president can go out there and tout all the people he's signed up, but how about the young man I talked to last week out in California whose premiums have doubled? His co-pay and deductibles tripled, and his wife's hours got cut to 29 hours."

The economist Dean Baker has pointed out that every element of this supposed story is almost certainly false. It is possible that the individual Boehner claims to be quoting is deeply misinformed about his own health insurance options (we've seen a rash of such instances as one Obama "horror story" after another proves to be untrue). But Baker notes that it is highly unlikely that whomever the speaker allegedly spoke to actually had the experience Boehner describes. Also clearly false is the presumptive claim about why the young man's wife had her hours cut. As Baker says, the employer mandate that has implications for companies with fifty or more employees doesn't kick in until 2015. If she had her hours cut, in other words, it was for some other reason.

On the one hand, stories like this are a sign of increasing unease on the part of the GOP about the failure of Obamacare to fail. The early website fiasco has been replaced by a generally much better functioning interface. The recent enrollment reports have been a very pleasant surprise to the law's supporters. Nearly 10 million people are newly insured because of the Affordable Care Act. Problems will persist. Some people are worse off because of the law, though a substantially larger number of people will be better off as a result (and the ratio of good to bad would have been dramatically higher but for the utterly indefensible obstruction of Republican-controlled state governments regarding Medicaid expansion). But the horror stories that the GOP hoped and prayed represented a massive failure of the law are not materializing.

Boehner's potted story isn't, though, ultimately a health care story. It's only one more illustration of the GOP's ongoing war on reality. It can't be said often enough that the single most revealing line by a Republican high official in recent years was uttered three years ago by Arizona Senator Jon Kyl. In April 2011, Kyl took to the floor of the Senate chamber to denounce Planned Parenthood. He averred that 90 percent of what the organization did was abortion. The actual figure is more like 3 percent. This is what you might call a large error. When confronted with the fact of Kyl's wild misstatement, the senator's office put out a clarification that his claim "was not intended to be a factual statement."

Aside from its comic value and its contribution to Internet meme culture, the phrase remains a perfect encapsulation of the Republican Party today. On issue after issue, its leaders spew egregious factual falsehoods. They're doing so only secondarily because they are so often misinformed. Instead, their overriding goal is to appeal to what they understand to be the biases and prejudices of their evermore authoritarian base. The Ryan budgets, the latest of which he presented this week, are a perfect example of the difference between trying to articulate the policy tradeoffs necessary in any budgetary negotiation and a simulacrum thereof. Ryan is engaged only in the latter. In this exercise, he uses what is essentially the idiom of budget writing -- his "budgets" include numbers, and projections and wonky sounding budget-y language. The real purpose of Ryan's budget writing is, however, to express the party's fantasy version of reality and to indulge its core resentments. The budget is a reflection of some important truths -- it makes clear, once again, Ryan's and the party's contempt for the less well off and deep desire to make their lives worse. It reflects the GOP's ongoing insistence that the wealthy be protected from even the slightest disturbances in the force field that surrounds their lavish and intricately protected lifestyles. It fails on its own terms, which is supposedly to put us on a sound budgetary path, because that's not its true intent.

In that regard, the various Ryan budgets or Boehner's health care story are no different than the repeated falsehoods Republicans have issued about Benghazi, or Obama's birth certificate, or Obamaphones, or the president's supposed war on rich people (about that, dear lord, make it stop!). In none of these cases, are the alleged facts really "intended to be factual statements." They're just expressions of deeply held resentments and prejudices -- whether it's that Obama is a perfidious interloper, or that poor people should get what they deserve and what they deserve is the shaft, or that America's cultural fabric is being destroyed by loose women and gays, or that minority groups are stealing "real" Americans' birthright and undermining our democracy. Symbol- and emotion-laden appeals are, of course, as old as politics. What's novel here is the degree to which a major political party operates almost entirely on the basis of such appeals. We'd all be better off if such expressions of viscera -- whether or not they come in the form of alleged stories about health insurance or budgets -- were more consistently understood as such, rather than as factual statements to be taken at face value, when that's not how GOP party leaders themselves really intend them.

(Check out my musings on ESPN and other sports media here).