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Conservatives Are Still Trying to Unskew Obamacare Numbers

The Heritage Foundation's "news" site, The Daily Signal, gets in on the act

Fox News

Back in May, the Heritage Foundation announced its intent to launch a digital news site, with a focus on straight reporting. Not another red-meat-heavy site like Daily Caller and Breitbart, which engage in a lot of "preaching to the choir," or a conservative answer to Ezra Klein's Vox, which "has got a wild liberal bias to it."

"Just laying out the facts."

The Daily Signal launched this month. And on Tuesday, its marquee reporter Sharyl Attkisson—who resigned from CBS earlier this year amid well-founded internal and external questions about her impartiality—landed the site a big scoop.

"Obamacare Exchanges Are ‘Disappointing’ With Fewer Than 4 Million Newly Insured. The Government Hoped for 26 Million."

The story landed on Drudge almost instantly. That didn't in and of itself contradict the Signal's proud commitment to eschewing red meat. It isn't choir-preaching if you're bringing new facts to bear, after all, even if those facts are inconvenient to Affordable Care Act supporters.

But as you may have guessed, both of those claims are incorrect. Not just a little incorrect, but badly, glaringly, easily-falsifiably incorrect. So are a tremendous number of the supporting claims in the article, which was written with an apparent obliviousness to the fact that liberals have scrutinized and rescrutinized and agonized over enrollment data for weeks and weeks now, dreading the possibility that Obamacare wouldn't reduce the uninsurance rate sharply, or that enrollment would experience a steep drop off as beneficiaries let their premiums slip.

What we have here is a false analogy between one subset of newly insured Obamacare beneficiaries and an optimistic but wildly outdated projection of how steeply the Affordable Care Act would reduce uninsurance overall in its first year. This is a bit more disingenuous than writing off George Foreman's boxing career by citing his unimpressive record fighting in Kinshasa.

The short version is that 4 million represents a very conservative estimate of newly insured (as opposed to previously insured) people who are now enrolled in private health plans on or the state-based exchanges. If you factor in newly insured people who purchased private plans outside of the exchanges, or who became insured through Medicaid, you're looking at a much higher total, easily north of 10 million. But you still can't compare that to the initial projections of ACA's first year coverage expansion, because they were drawn with the expectation that the Medicaid expansion was effectively mandatory. The Supreme Court made it explicitly optional. And several million more people would likely be insured if not for that decision. We probably still wouldn't be at 26 million (a CMS projection Attkisson has imputed to a finger-crossing Obama), but we'd be much closer to the 21 million CBO projected back in 2011.

Pieces like the Daily Signal are intended to provide third-party validation for Affordable Care Act foes, loath to accept the law's more flattering reality. "One analysis I read showed that Obamacare only insured 4 million people—it canceled more than that many plans!"

That's no doubt part of the reason Signal's founders were so assiduous about setting themselves apart from ideological outlets that traffic in more than "just the facts." But this piece is so flawed that it might actually fail to penetrate and lodge itself into official party talking points. It's too easily debunked.

Yet as of Tuesday evening, the article remains on the Signal's site uncorrected. It has been shared on Facebook several thousand times. None of the conservatives who initially touted it have undertaken any effort to set the record straight. None of the ACA's straighter-shooting foes have called out the misinformation for what it is. Their behavior is consistent with the pattern of asymmetric ideological coverage that defined the law's rollout. ACA supporters would generally acknowledge the bad news along with the good, whereas its foes would pass along both substantiated and unsubstantiated failures, while completely ignoring even glimmers of promise and improvement. When things started to stabilize they expended almost no energy correcting the record. Now that they have stabilized, most conservatives must choose between radio silence and sophistry—or, more charitably, to take up residence the right's alternative data world.

The only other option is to concede, implicitly or otherwise, that all the nonsense was nonsense, all the predictions of doom turned out to be wrong, and to fight Obamacare on more aboveboard ideological grounds. A few conservatives have turned this corner. But the vast, vast majority either haven't gotten there yet or remain stuck in 2013. Even if they're not pinning all their electoral hopes on its imminent failure anymore.