There's an old story that occasionally makes the rounds in Washington. In the 1970s, a magazine (now long defunct) named New Times
reported that Sen. William Scott, a Virginia Republican, had been ranked the "dumbest" senator in a survey conducted by a public interest group. Subsequently, Scott held a press conference to deny the charge -- thereby proving he was pretty darn dumb. After all, he only called more attention to the accusation.
Sarah Palin has taken a Scott-like position.
Earlier this month, PolitiFact.com
, a project of the St. Petersburg Times
Palin the not-so-coveted "lie of the year" award for claiming last summer that President Obama's health care reform initiative would set up "death panels" run by bureaucrats who would decide if seniors and disabled citizens "based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society' " would be "worthy of health care." PolitiFact.com explains:
On Aug. 10, PolitiFact rated Palin's statement Pants on Fire [its highest -- or lowest -- rating]. In the weeks that followed, health care policy experts on both the right and the left said the euthanasia comparisons were inaccurate. Gail Wilensky, a health adviser to President George H.W. Bush, said the charge was untrue and upsetting.
"I think it is really unfortunate that this has been raised and received so much attention because there are serious issues to debate in health care reform," she said at a forum on Sept. 3.
Responding to the initial Pants-on-Fire designation, Palin tried to have it both ways, claiming her phrase was metaphoric and
accurate. In a Nov. 17 interview
with National Review, she said she didn't regret the remark:
"To me, while reading that section of the bill, it became so evident that there would be a panel of bureaucrats who would decide on levels of health care, decide on those who are worthy or not worthy of receiving some government-controlled coverage," she said. "Since health care would have to be rationed if it were promised to everyone, it would therefore lead to harm for many individuals not able to receive the government care. That leads, of course, to death."
"The term I used to describe the panel making these decisions should not be taken literally," said Palin. The phrase is "a lot like when President Reagan used to refer to the Soviet Union as the 'evil empire.' He got his point across. He got people thinking and researching what he was talking about. It was quite effective. Same thing with the 'death panels.' I would characterize them like that again, in a heartbeat."
Not literal, but accurate -- as in, well, you know what I mean
Now Palin is again taking issue with being called a liar. In a new Facebook posting
, she scoffs at "Nancy Pelosi and friends who have tried to call 'death panels' the 'lie of the year.' " She doesn't mention it was the neutral PolitiFact.com that branded her statement the whopper of 2009. And she claims she has proof she was correct in the first place. The pending Senate health care bill, she says, calls for an Independent Medicare Advisory Board to find ways to cut costs. This, she writes, "is also known as rationing." If that's the case, then every insurance company and health care firm in America is a death panel, for that's what they do each day: seek ways to trim costs to bolster profits.
But there's more. Palin cites a letter Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week, referring to the bill's call for reducing Medicare spending by 2 percent. "It is unclear," Elmendorf noted, "whether such a reduction in the growth rate could be achieved, and if so, whether it would be accomplished through greater efficiencies in the delivery of health care or would reduce access to care or diminish the quality of care."
Aha, Palin proclaims: This reduced " 'access to care' and 'diminish[ed] quality of care' - is precisely what I meant when I used that metaphor." (She's back to calling it a metaphor.)
Not really. As Greg Sargent has pointed out
, Palin is changing her definitions. When she first referred to "death panels," she was portraying them as medical tribunes that would decide the fate of specific individuals. ("You're IQ is too low, so no dialysis for you!"
) Now, she's essentially claiming that any cost-cutting that might influence access to care constitutes establishing a "death panel." Not only is she being shifty; Palin is poisoning one policy debate that the nation needs to have about health care. Does this ardent foe of socialism really believe that the U.S. government ought to pay for any medical procedure that a Medicare recipient might want? What if a treatment costs several million dollars and at best can extend the life of a dying patient by a week? If you question such a practice, then, in Palin's book, you're for rationing and can be a charter member of a "death panel."
Tough policy matters aside, Palin is playing loose with the facts about her own pronouncements -- and calling even more attention to her dubious distinction of promoting the lie of year. The big question is, in this category, can she top herself in 2010? You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.