Politifact Goes Off The Deep End

by Jonathan Chait | April 21, 2011

Political reporters have certain ideological biases. Some of them tilt leftward -- for instance, a tendency to view social conservatives as ignorant and bigoted. But other tilt rightward, such as support for free trade, and cuts to entitlement programs. Reporters almost reflexively view cuts to Social Security and Medicare as necessary, advocates of said policies as brave, and opponents as demagogic fear-mongers.

That is the context in which to understand Politifact's "Pants on Fire" rating of a whimisical Democratic ad assailing Republicans for approving Paul Ryan's plan to phase out Medicare. Politifact's analysis is a pastiche of non-sequiturs, taking of the GOP's side in contested questions of values, and bending over backward to interpret the ad in the most hostile possible light.

Let's go through Politifact's analysis.

1. Politifact: "to say the Republicans voted to end Medicare, as the ad does, is a major exaggeration. All seniors would continue to be offered coverage under the proposal, and the program’s budget would increase every year."

Republicans voted to transform Medicare from an open-ended commitment to cover medical care for the elderly into a defined contribution would start at less than the value of the current program and rapidly shrink as a percentage of the cost of a health insurance plan. Whether this constitutes ending Medicare is, of course, a matter of debate. Democrats argue, sensibly enough in my view, that ending the programs basic role in guaranteeing health care and turning it into a limited subsidy toward the purchase of private insurance would turn it into something other than what it has been its entire existence. I suppose one could argue that it would similar enough to the current program that it cannot be called an end to Medicare, but this is a highly disputable notion.

2. Politifact: "Republicans say that future spending projections for Medicare are not sustainable, and the program requires changes."

Obviously this has no relevance to the truth of the Democrats' ad.

3. Politifact: "Another problem with the ad is that it claims that participants would have to find $12,500 to pay for Medicare. That number is based on statistics compiled by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The ad doesn’t mention, though, that the number includes money that would go to Medicare in any case. The CBO estimates beneficiaries would contribute about $6,150 in premiums in 2022 if the program isn’t changed at all. So the extra money seniors need to pay under the Republican proposal is more like $6,350."

Except the ad doesn't say seniors will have to pay $12,500 more under the GOP plan. It just says, accurately, that they'll have to pay $12,500. If the democrats proposed to raise everybody's tax rate to 100%, would it be fair for the Republicans to attack them for making people in the top tax rate pay a 100% tax, or would this be a lie because it failed to note that they were merely increasing the top rate by 65 percentage points?

4. Politifact: "Still another problem with the ad involves who’s immediately affected by the Republican proposal. In one scene, the ad shows a senior citizen pushing a walker behind a lawn mower. A teenager looking on eats an apple and says, "You missed a spot." In reality, people 55 and older won’t see changes under the Ryan plan. It’s actually that teenager -- or anyone else 54 or younger -- who would pay extra money when they are older."

It's certainly possible that some viewers would interpret the ad to describe current seniors. But the ad doesn't say that. the people who will no longer enjoy traditional Medicare benefits will, in fact, be old. If the Democrats depicted a young person working to pay for health insurance, Politifact would no doubt be lecturing us that the teenager will no longer be young by the time he's affected, and will be an old man. The point of the ad was that republicans voted to create a system in which old people will not be able to afford health insurance.

5. Politifact: "And finally, the ad neglects another critical fact: The Republicans voted on a budget resolution that states policy preferences, but the vote did not actually change Medicare, much less end it. As we’ve noted before in previous fact-checks, budget resolutions are non-binding documents that cannot be viewed as the equivalent of legislation that establishes law. Deeply desiring something and accomplishing it are different."

Wait -- it's a lie to say Republicans voted to end Medicare because the vote hasn't been signed into law? Lawmakers can be held accountable for votes only after those votes are signed into law? This is so ridiculous I can't believe Politifact is arguing it. The whole analysis is hard to interpret as anything other than an expression of the view that criticizing any proposal that reduces spending on Medicare or Social Security is inherently foul play.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/87146/politifact-goes-the-deep-end