The Rockaway Irregular
We expect a certain amount of disingenuousness in our politicians. Running for office is a tough game because you have to appeal to a multiplicity of voters and interests.
I know because I once ran myself and it was pretty tough, I can tell you, to be standing on a stage and fielding questions whose answers, if sincerely given, you know will lack appeal to a significant and vocal part of your audience. I aimed to be honest in my responses – and got only 23 percent of the vote. Would I have done better if I’d pandered?
Although there were other reasons for my loss (I refused to solicit campaign contributions and so had a miniscule budget to work with, while the electorate was registered more than three to one in favor of the other party), it’s not unlikely my insistence on sticking to principles played a role in my poor showing.
Perhaps I’d have lost anyway, but it’s certain that my refusal to tailor my words to my audiences didn’t help.
Still, tailoring our words isn’t always to misrepresent oneself since there are nuances to everything we say, subtle points to be made, as I’m sure our current president believes – if and when he pauses to think about the many disingenuous things he’s said, both before and after entering the White House. So where do we as voters want to draw the line?
When does adjusting one’s message to one’s audience tip into outright lying? Perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder?
During the eight years of the second Bush presidency, it was common to hear George W. Bush called a liar (and a whole lot worse) with the accusations picked up and magnified by a generally unsympathetic media.
We’ve seen no similar amplification of the current president’s many misstatements, though – except from his political opponents, which is to be expected. Lies not recognized are quickly forgotten and our current president has benefited from that. Unfortunately, his history of disingenuousness has grown to such proportions that it’s getting harder and harder for his supporters to finesse it.
This was brought home most recently with the decision of the Supreme Court vis-à-vis the constitutionality of the healthcare legislation now commonly known as Obamacare. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, stepping away from the conservatives with whom he generally sides, penned a majority opinion upholding Obamacare on the grounds that the contested individual mandate to buy health insurance (or pay a penalty if you fail to) is, in fact, a tax.
Of course, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress who worked to pass the massive legislation (which depends in large part on that individual mandate), refused to call the penalty a tax back when they were working to pass it. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely it would have passed if they had.
Yet, in arguments before the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Donald Verilli, representing the Obama administration, had claimed that that was just what it was. And, in his final opinion, Chief Justice Roberts accepted that reasoning.
But “tax” is a dirty word with most voters and President Obama is on record as claiming he would not raise taxes on the middle class – just the area where this new health care penalty tax (which isn’t that except that the Supreme Court ruled that it is) will fall. The president is also very publicly on record that this new constitutional individual mandate isn’t what the Court ruled it to be, a tax – despite the fact that the law makes it enforceable by the IRS and payable at tax time along with income taxes and beefs up IRS staffing to do the enforcement.
The Court held that the legislated basis for the penalty, that it was permissible under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, was unconstitutional because it unreasonably expanded that clause’s scope.
But the taxing power of the federal government, it found, allowed imposition of the penalty in question, thus saving Obamacare.
The president’s allies and spokespersons quickly deployed to maintain the charade but, as Chris Wallace asked on a recent Sunday morning talk show, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like one, why is it anything else?
Obama Chief of Staff Jack Lew had a ready answer for Wallace as he hemmed and hawed around the subject, making even his interviewer visibly uncomfortable.
“The law is clear,” Lew said. “It’s called a penalty.”
So is just calling something by another name enough? I s persistently avoiding the “tax” word, even in the wording of the legislation itself, sufficient to change the duck to a swan? Other Democrats had already weighed in with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a former Speaker of the House who was instrumental in narrowly ramming through the 2000 plus page healthcare legislation in the first place, leading the charge. It doesn’t matter what you call it, she told reporters in answer to a similar question.
Perhaps words and meanings just don’t matter anymore? For those who, like Ms. Pelosi, believe in universal health care coverage, expansive government and the welfare state, costs be damned, a little dissimulation in what is perceived to be a good cause must seem like no big deal.
What are a few misleading claims between friends after all – or between politicians and the voters they’re supposed to serve?
Charm and polish make it all easier and our current president, unlike his predecessor, has mastered the art of speaking to audiences in a thoughtful, empathetic and remarkably reassuring way.
It sometimes seems as if he can sell us pretty much anything. But a quick fact check of his record shows a long series of whoppers, from tales he’s told about his own life in his memoirs to campaign statements (like his pre-election pledge to accept federal campaign funding in ‘08 and subsequent reversal when it became clear he could raise more than his opponent by not doing so). Or his support of a single payer health care system, followed by a reversal – or his one-time opposition to the individual mandate now at issue, followed by his decision to support it. Or his opposition to gay marriage, followed by his decision to support that. Or his acknowledgement, last fall and earlier, that he didn’t have the Constitutional power to simply choose to forego enforcement of select provisions of the nation’s immigration laws, prior to his decision to do just that.
Sometimes his many scrapes with the truth can seem relatively minor (or, at least, explainable as mere interpretive differences), but at other times, as with the healthcare law mandate, something more significant hangs in the balance. After all, Obamacare will effectively take over about a sixth of this nation’s economy in a time of substantial economic uncertainty, snowballing deficits and erosion of American influence around the world. Worse, it’s now expected to cost billions more than originally promised by its proponents (based on recent scoring by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office – no surprise there as objective analysis at the time said as much, if anyone was listening).
Yet, as we can now see, Obamacare was passed not only in an atmosphere of raw partisan intimidation by a Democratic majority in Congress (remember the bitter rhetoric that accompanied that legislative battle?) to an orchestral accompaniment of numerous special interest deals (Cornhusker Kickback anyone?); it became law in the face of broad popular disapproval around the country and, as is now painfully obvious, under false pretenses.
Surely that kind of disingenuousness matters.
Maybe it will even matter to voters that some of our leaders are in the habit of telling us one thing while doing another, come November.