The Graham-Cassidy bill is headed for defeat, but in one important way it has already won: It demonstrated that President Donald Trump isn’t the only politician who can get away with bald-faced lies. That’s something we need to pay attention to before the news cycle moves on—because just like the zombie health care bill, it’s going to haunt us again.
Graham-Cassidy, to refresh your memory, was generally considered “the most radical Obamacare repeal bill yet.” Here’s the nickel summary from our colleague Pat Caldwell: “It would allow insurance companies to charge higher rates for people with preexisting conditions. It would bring back junk plans that don’t offer the coverage people expect when they go to the doctor. It would…force states either to raise taxes sharply or to kick millions of people off Medicaid. And it would cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood for a year, decimating the country’s largest women’s health provider.”
Republican senators didn’t push this bill because they agreed with its provisions—as Vox‘s Jeff Stein demonstrated when he asked nine of them to explain what was in the bill. (None could.) They were simply jumping on a last-minute bandwagon because for the past seven years they have demagogued Obamacare, and those bills are coming due.
That is terrible politics, but at least it’s a familiar kind of terrible politics. Here’s the slightly less familiar part: The bill’s authors flat-out lied about what it would do, and tried to manipulate the media into not reporting it—and it took a late-night comedian to call them on it. That—nine months into the Age of Trump, after a whole lot of chest-beating about how news organizations were finally going to call deception out for what it is—is bad news. So let’s, as they say, rewind the tape.
First, the preexisting-condition scam. As Pat noted in that story above, the bill would wipe out Obamacare’s protections for people with preexisting conditions. Pat, by the way, understands what this means better than most. He was diagnosed with leukemia at age 10 and is here today because, when you do have health coverage, that kind of diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. He knows, with every fiber, what it means when you throw people like him to the wolves.
Every part of my body is a preexisting condition thanks to chemo. No insurer would ever want to cover me on the individual market 10/
— Patrick Caldwell (@patcaldwell) March 23, 2017
Jimmy Kimmel knows what Pat’s talking about. Last spring, the late-night host used his platform to deliver an impassioned message to politicians on behalf of his newborn son, who has a heart condition. In response to that, Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana who is also a doctor, said any health care legislation should pass the “Jimmy Kimmel test.”
— Jimmy Kimmel (@jimmykimmel) September 19, 2017
Cassidy’s new bill utterly failed his own test, and so Kimmel ripped into him last week, offering him “a new Jimmy Kimmel test—a lie detector test.” And here’s where it gets amazing: In response to Kimmel pointing out his lies, Cassidy gave an interview to CNN where he…lied again. “I’m sorry he does not understand,” he said. “Under Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson, more people will have coverage, and we protect those with preexisting conditions.”
Literally every word in those two sentences was false. Not spin, not an evasion, not a dodge, not even a carefully cooked set of cherry-picked facts like, say, the Bush administration’s case for the war in Iraq way back when. Cassidy blew right past all that and just flat-out made stuff up.
And…most news reports didn’t really call him on it. (Listen to this NPR segment about Graham-Cassidy: Nothing about the Medicaid cuts. Nothing about preexisting conditions. No mention of how many would lose coverage. What else, honestly, was there to talk about?) Yes, there were good pieces about “misleading” statements, but there were very few that did what news organizations have promised to do more often: call a falsehood by its actual name.
Which is exactly what the sponsors of the bill seem to be counting on. Their strategy is almost a perfect test of whether what worked for Trump could work for others as well: exploit the weak spots of traditional journalism and leverage them to deceive the American people.
Here’s where we get to Part II of the Graham-Cassidy deception: Everyone in Washington knows the devastation the bill would wreak in the health care markets. But the Congressional Budget Office hasn’t officially produced a “score” confirming how many tens of millions will lose coverage, because the sponsors (despite talking up their bill for three months) didn’t release the actual text until the very last minute. And because destroying millions of people’s lives isn’t news until the appropriate government entity says so.
It’s a remarkably crude bit of media manipulation—and that it’s working is a really bad sign. Journalism has enjoyed a renaissance in the past few months as the public has reckoned with the fact that a free, vigorous, and independent press is critical for a vibrant democracy. News organizations have made that mission part of their brand—”Democracy Dies in Darkness” and all that. They, in effect, offered a pact to the audience: Support us and we’ll be there for you when your leaders lie. But what if they fail to keep that promise?
At Mother Jones, we’re not going to back off calling a spade a spade (it’s easy to just say that, so here are some places you can see it’s in our DNA). And ever since Trump took office, we’ve talked about the importance of staying vigilant: sifting through the noise of overlapping news cycles to note the developments that rattle the foundations of our democracy. The secrecy and lies we’ve seen in this latest round of the health care debate fit that bill.
One way we can protect our democracy when it seems more fragile than ever is to make sure your voice is heard—and you have the facts to back it up. As journalists, our job is to call a lie a lie, but also to dig deeper to get at the truth. Because that’s what you, our readers, deserve, and what you need. Especially when Trump-era politics is built on suppressing information that the public is entitled to—CBO scores to tax returns and scientific studies—because it makes lying easier. Mother Jones exists to make lying harder.
If you want to make it harder for politicians to lie, I hope you’ll consider supporting our journalism with a tax-deductible donation during our fall pledge drive. We need to raise $200,000 by the end of October to stay on track.
But, you might ask, do facts matter anymore at all? The answer is yes, as Kimmel discovered. Here’s a good point from Dan Pfeiffer, who served in the Obama White House and is one of the co-hosts of Pod Save America.
“There are two ways you can look at the nullification of objective truth that is sort of the core strategy of the Republican Party these days,” Pfeiffer said. “One is: We’re all going to lie. If they can do it, we’re going to do it too. The other one is to swerve in the opposite direction, which is to nail your facts so hard that it becomes very hard for your opponents to try to nullify them.” Kimmel, Pfeiffer noted, did this: He triple-checked his facts, delivered them powerfully, and had a big impact.
That’s what we’re here to help you do. Whether you’re able to support us now or not (or if you already have!), thanks for turning to Mother Jones as a reliable source of fact-based news when the very notion of truth itself is called into question. We’ll let Kimmel take it from here.