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Republicans' "Death Panel" Smear Was Appallingly Effective


For several months last year, conservatives racheted up their reprehensible, years-long smear campaign against the Affordable Care Act. I'm speaking specifically of demonstrably false claims and insinuations, distinct from other, contestable claims about the law's impact on economic growth, the labor market, government spending, health outcomes, disruption and so on. "Death panels" is the most famous of these, followed closely by red-baiting allusions to socialism, then by unsubstantiated claims about the availability of doctors and the vulnerability of personal information, and eventually the implication that Creepy Uncle Sam would sexually violate beneficiaries.

The purpose of these kinds of tactics was initially to kill the legislation (failed), then to elect a Republican government to repeal the law (failed), and finally to discourage enrollment, deny ACA marketplaces critical mass, and collapse the system intrinsically (also failed).

The last of these goals was always the most grotesque, because it entailed convincing strangers to undertake great personal risk by lying to them. It was insanely reckless. And if this Washington Post report is any indication, it worked:

That doesn’t make Carolyn Underwood, 63, a supporter of expanded government health coverage, even though she would benefit from it. In a region where the decline of the coal industry has sent poverty and health-care needs soaring, another force has grown at least by equal measures: antipathy to President Obama and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

“I am scared of Obamacare,” Underwood said. “We’ve been hearing too many tales about it. We heard there’s doctors who get to decide...” Before she could put her finger on the term “death panels,” her sister Nancy Taylor, 62, made a gun gesture with her hand and said, “Pow!”


A few houses down, a woman whose only job is overseeing a table covered in a hodgepodge of clocks, hats and ceramic figures said she pays all her medical expenses out of pocket and wouldn’t have it any other way. She can get generic blood pressure medicine cheap, but her anxiety pills cost $192.50 a month, she said.

She and her husband, who works security but receives no benefits, would rather pay a penalty for being uninsured than participate in Obamacare, said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was talking about her medical conditions.

“I refused to go there because I didn’t feel it was the government’s place to tell you where you have to get health care. I want to go to the doctor of my own choice,” she said, adding that she doesn’t trust the president. “I think he has actually lied to the people about a lot of things.”

Conservatives have never shown any remorse for the consequences of these tactics. To the contrary, they've exploited the tribulations of the very Obamacare skeptics they helped mislead for political gain. People like Carolyn Underwood and Nancy Taylor weren't unfortunate victims as far as the right was concerned. They were the whole point. But now that even staunch Obamacare opponents are conceding that Obamacare isn't going to be repealed, isn't going to collapse under its own weight, and certainly isn't going to subject anyone to a death panel or a sexually deranged government bureaucrat, these kinds of lies serve no strategic purposes of any kind. They merely put people's health at risk out of spite.