Remember the “death tax”? The estate tax is quite literally a millionaire’s tax — a tax that affects only a tiny minority of the population and is mostly paid by a handful of very wealthy heirs. Nonetheless, right-wingers have successfully convinced many voters that the tax is a cruel burden on ordinary Americans — that all across the nation small businesses and family farms are being broken up to pay crushing estate tax liabilities.
You might think that such heart-wrenching cases are actually quite rare, but you’d be wrong: They aren’t rare; they’re nonexistent. To my knowledge, nobody has ever come up with a real modern example of a family farm sold to meet estate taxes. The whole “death tax” campaign has rested on eliciting human sympathy for purely imaginary victims.
And now they’re trying a similar campaign against health reform.
I’m not sure whether conservatives realize yet that their Plan A on health reform — wait for Obamacare’s inevitable collapse and reap the political rewards — isn’t working. But it isn’t. Enrollments have recovered strongly from the law’s disastrous startup; in California, which had a working website from the beginning, enrollment has already exceeded first-year projections. The mix of people signed up so far is older than planners had hoped, but not enough so to cause big premium hikes, let alone the often-predicted “death spiral.”
And conservatives don’t really have a Plan B — in their world, nobody even dares mention the possibility that health reform might actually prove workable. Still, you can already see some on the right groping toward a new strategy, one that relies on highlighting examples of the terrible harm Obamacare does.
There’s only one problem: They haven’t managed to come up with real examples that can withstand scrutiny. Consider several recent ventures on the right:
• In the official GOP response to the State of the Union address, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers alluded to the case of “Bette in Spokane,” who supposedly lost her good health insurance coverage and was forced to pay nearly $700 more a month in premiums. Local reporters located the real Bette and found that the story was completely misleading; her original policy provided very little protection and she could get a much better plan for much less than the claimed cost.
• In Louisiana, the AstroTurf (fake grass-roots) group Americans for Prosperity — the group appears to be largely financed and controlled by the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors — has been running ads targeting Sen. Mary Landrieu. In these ads, we see what appear to be ordinary Louisiana residents receiving notices telling them that their insurance policies have been canceled because of Obamacare. But the people in the ads are, in fact, paid actors, and the scenes they play aren’t re-enactments of real events — they’re “emblematic,” says a spokesman for the group.
• In Michigan, Americans for Prosperity is running an ad that does feature a real person. But is she telling a real story? In the ad, Julia Boonstra, who is suffering from leukemia, declares that her insurance has been canceled, that the new policy will have unaffordable out-of-pocket costs, and that “If I do not receive my medication, I will die.”
But Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post tried to check the facts and learned that thanks to lower premiums she will almost surely save nearly as much if not more than she will be paying in higher out-of-pocket costs. A spokesman for Americans for Prosperity responded to questions about the numbers with bluster and double-talk — this is about “a real person suffering from blood cancer, not some neat and tidy White House PowerPoint.”
Even supporters of health reform are somewhat surprised by the right’s apparent inability to come up with real cases of serious hardship. Surely there must be some people somewhere actually being hurt by a reform that affects millions of Americans. Why can’t the right find these people and exploit them?
The most likely answer is that the true losers from Obamacare generally aren’t very sympathetic. For the most part, they’re either very affluent people affected by the special taxes that help finance reform or at least moderately well-off young men in very good health who can no longer buy cheap, minimalist plans. Neither group would play well in tear-jerker ads.
No, what the right wants are struggling average Americans, preferably women, facing financial devastation from health reform. So those are the tales they’re telling, even though they haven’t been able to come up with real examples of such dire consequences.
Hey, I have a suggestion: Why not have ads in which actors play Americans who have both lost their insurance thanks to Obamacare and lost the family farm to the death tax? I mean, once you’re just making stuff up, anything goes.
Paul Krugman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.