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A Thought on the Tenor of the Healthcare Debate

August 13, 2009

Opponents of the healthcare reform legislation in Congress are rightly accused of making arguments based on misinformation.

But there is a good reason why they are having some success in doing so, and why the tactic isn’t totally unfair: the proponents of reform are incredibly slippery with respect to what such reform will entail, making a variety of inconsistent claims or claims that are little more than aspirations.

It is pretty hard for opponents of healthcare reform to debate confident assertions that healthcare reform will be all things to all people: that we’ll have better coverage for more people that costs less. Who could disagree with that? If one makes the (correct) natural counterargument is that it is extremely unlikely that we could achieve that result through a new government initiative, that sounds like defeatism.

That response also prompts an outpouring of assertions and analysis from political advocates of the current healthcare reform proposal that purport to show that this really is possible. The problem is that those claims are pretty slippery and misleading themselves. Keith Hennessey does a great job of describing those claims in a post contains links to 10 Hennessey  posts on the same subject. (Hennessey’s description of why healthcare reform couldn’t be passed through reconciliation (which would not require 60 votes in the Senate) is also excellent and analysis I have not seen elsewhere.)

At this point, opponents could complain about the nature of those assertions and analysis, but that sounds like carping.

It appears that a more successful rhetorical response is to make claims about what is really entailed by healthcare reform that the proponents are not mentioning and in fact even disclaim. That is what is going on at the town meetings we see and it is getting traction because of the inherent unpersuasiveness of the analysis behind the case for current progressive healthcare reform legislation—including the implausibility of various assertions about what the results will be (e.g. if you currently have insurance or Medicare nothing will change). People don’t believe the assertions about what will be in healthcare reform, so many are assuming the worst (with some cause!),

If the case for such changes to healthcare did not have significant problems, the scaremongering at town meetings would not be successful. The fact that it is having success tells us something significant about the case for progressive healthcare reform.

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