Simple rhetoric makes lousy governance
October 27, 2010
I heard a Republican candidate during this past month defend the Republican’s Pledge to America, admitting that they wanted to retain many features of Obamacare with their replacement but wanted to start from scratch with something that was easier to understand.
No wonder this line gained some traction.
Republicans have succeeded in muddying the waters with simple sound-bite-sized zingers, and Democrats have failed to respond with timely clarity.
Simplistic comments about complex problems can make great campaign ads, but lousy governance. Unintended consequences and other priorities have a way of complicating simple slogans, but they require explanation and phrasing them in ways that cut through the weeds of wonkiness.
The Obama administration failed at the beginning to explain Obamacare, partially because the legislation was multi-faceted and complex and partially because early messages did not match opponents in volume nor address individual consumer concerns.
To compound the failure, the Administration did not provide timely direct rebuttals to some of the fearmongering raised by Republicans. The Republican messages took root in the resulting fertile grounds of public ignorance and confusion.
It is hard to miss the ads claiming $500 billion was cut from Medicare “hurting seniors.”
The inference made was benefits would be cut.
It was a simple but very misleading message. The administration failed to respond with the same intensity, yet facts were on their side. No traditional benefits would be cut. True, the Medicare Advantage program would no longer be subsidized by federal money but that program offered little more than a convenient way to write a check to an insurance company for a supplemental. The federal subsidy made insurance companies fat for administering Medicare, adding 12 percent to the cost of Medicare and did nothing to improve senior’s health.
Nor would the cut to Medicare damage its shelf life. Just the opposite was true.
Lost in the simplistic Republican message, and the administration’s failure to refute it , were independent actuarial projections that Medicare got 12 years added to its life due to reform’s cost cutting and the Medicare program would be able to provide full benefits through 2038.
Did you see ads that claim Obamacare’s costs would drive up the deficit? The opposite proved true when evaluated by the non-partisan Congressional Budget office.
The Republicans offered a simple answer with what to do with continuing the expiring Bush tax breaks : eliminate them for everyone and make them permanent. However, reducing taxes to the 2 to 3 percent rich would have cost the treasury and added to the federal debt billions of dollars. There was a retort to be made. “Funny how Republicans are concerned about the deficit except when top 2 to 3 percent income brackets are impacted.” Democrats facing close elections went AWOL rather than take the issue on.
Other candidates advocated a consumption tax, or a 23 percent-plus national sales tax on all items to take the place of graduated income tax and or corporate taxes. A consumption tax, a value added tax, a national sales tax or a flat tax are simple to understand because they apply the same percentage rate to every citizen across the board. However, all hit the poor and middle class harder in proportion to their incomes than the rich. Simple to understand but also simply unfair.
Democrats failed to reply forcefully to Republicans’ simple charges “they “are raising (your) taxes. Not true unless you are in the upper income brackets. Every one of the Democratic legislative initiatives, whether Obamacare or tax policies, exempt businesses and individuals making $200,000 to $250,000 a year.
Simplicity should not be the only yardstick we use to measure policy or legislation. We may be tempted to fall for simple answers to very complex problems, but we owe it ourselves to make the effort to get informed about the details instead of depending on the simplistic advertising messages or some inarticulate or ill-informed advocate.