The truth about Obamacare”
If, this fall, proponents of health-care reform conduct a postmortem on how President Obama’s signature
issue went down to defeat—I’m not saying it will, but stick with me here—they will not be far off if they
trace it to this summer’s “great phrase face-off.” From Obama, we got “bending the cost curve,” his hope
of slowing the rise in health-care spending. From Sarah Palin: “death panels.” From Obama: “the status
quo on health care.
..is threatening the financial stability of families, of businesses, and of government.”
From GOP strategist Frank Luntz and his clients: some bureaucrat will put himself “between you and
your doctor, denying you exactly what you need.” From Obama: “If you like your health-care plan, you
can keep” it. From GOP Sen. Jon Kyl: “Imagine needing a new hip that will make it easier to get around,
but just because you’re over 75, the government denies you that surgery.” Not to mention Republican
Rep. Lamar Smith’s assertion that the Democrats’ bill “contains gaping loopholes that will allow illegal
immigrants to receive taxpayer-funded benefits.” And then there was that sign greeting President Obama
outside an August
in New Hampshire: Obama lies, grandma dies.
Which phrases inspire you to grab a pitchfork, or at least e-mail your congressman: bending the cost
curve, or stopping the government from condemning Grandma to death because treating her cancer is too
Anyone who believed that the battle over health-care reform would be waged on facts, logic, reason, and
concern for the less fortunate—46 million uninsured—probably also scoffed at Lyndon Johnson’s daisy
ad. As politicians and strategists (at least the successful ones) have finally learned, appeals to emotion
leave appeals to logic in the dust. And no emotion moves people more powerfully than fear. To explain
the remarkable traction that death panels and other lies have gotten this summer, however, you need to
probe deeper than the emotions-trump-reason truism. The specifics of the exaggerations and
misrepresentations that work best speak volumes about fundamental aspects of the American character,
about the neuroscience of decision making, and about the extraordinary events of the past 12 months.
Yes, I’m sorry to say that AIG is part of this story.
At this time last year, if you had asked people whether the federal government would effectively
nationalize AIG and Fannie Mae, and whether the Dow would plummet to 6,627 in March 2009 after
reaching 14,093 in October 2007, most would have confidently said no, that will never happen in my
lifetime. And yet …c “In a world gone crazy, the impossible—even ‘death panels’—suddenly seems
possible,” says psychologist Drew Westen of Emory University, author of the 2007 book The Political
Brain. The idea of death panels gains further credibility, he says, “because many people are vaguely