By choosing as its lie of the year “Republicans voted to end Medicare,” Politfact took an arguable point and tried to turn into a lie. Big mistake. They hurt the Politifact project by doing that. I wish they hadn’t.
The reason I think they were wrong is not that I see the statement, “Republicans voted to end Medicare” as indisputably true. It’s more the opposite: this is a very disputable claim. Jonathan Chait’s analysis matches my own:
The Republican budget would very dramatically change Medicare. The plan would turn a single-payer system into vouchers for private insurance, and the value of those vouchers would fall steadily behind the cost of that insurance, so that within a relatively short time it would cover only a small fraction of the cost of insurance.
Is that “ending Medicare?” Well, it’s a matter of opinion. At some point, a change is dramatic enough that it is clearly ending the program. If you proposed to replace Medicare with a plan to give everybody two free aspirin on their 65th birthday, I would hope Politfact would concede that this would be “ending Medicare,” even if you call the free aspirin “Medicare.” On the other hand, small tweaks could not accurately be called “ending Medicare.” Between those two extremes, you have gray areas where you can’t really say with certainty whether a change is radical enough to constitute ending Medicare.
Does the Republican plan indeed end Medicare? I would argue yes. But it’s obviously a question of interpretation, not fact. And the whole problem with Politifact’s “Lie of the Year” is that it doesn’t grasp this distinction
Right. The Economist pointed out another problem, which is that Lie of the Year says something about an intention to deceive. “The finalists are presented as lies rather than inaccurate statements or misinterpretations.”
This is an important distinction because, with regard to the Medicare claim, both sides could well be sincere: Democrats believe Republicans are trying to kill Medicare, and Republicans believe they aren’t. And while both sides have a political interest—senior citizens are diligent voters—let’s posit that there are Republicans who sincerely believe the best way to steward the country, and to guarantee some health care to the future elderly, is to reform the system to bring down entitlement costs. In other words, if insincerity or deliberate deception is a defining feature of a lie, then it may be that neither side is lying, regardless of who is correct.
It’s fair for Politifact to point out that “Republicans voted to end Medicare” isn’t as accurate as it could be. It’s fair to observe that adding a qualifier like, “Republicans voted to end Medicare as we’ve known it…” makes it more kosher. It’s fair to criticize those Democrats who have spoken less precisely than they could have about the change that Congressman Paul Ryan proposed. It’s fair to point to the inglorious history of scaring senior citizens rather than solving real problems. And it’s fair to hold up as virtuous more cautious statements, as Politifact did here:
President Barack Obama was also more precise with his words, saying the Medicare proposal “would voucherize the program and you potentially have senior citizens paying $6,000 more.”
My verdict: I don’t think Politifact chose a lie of the year in 2011. Their sights were set on something different, and they erred by calling it what they called it. They wanted to point out how far from virtuous the behavior of some Democrats was in reaction to the Ryan plan. They were standing up for the idea of scrupulous debate. They were saying: Be more careful! Because if you are not careful, you can scare people unnecessarily. Don’t go for the easy line! Be strict with yourself! Stay virtuous…
But the object of their criticism wasn’t a lie, it was a vice. They chose the vice of the year, and they called it a lie, which violates one of the ideas Politifact stands for: if things cannot be called by their right names, public discussion itself becomes impossible.