I'm wondering what it's going to take for my former colleagues in the Texas press corps to call out Rick Perry for using the term "socialism" over-and-over to describe the insurance reform Congress passed last week.
Either Perry and reporters covering him don't know what socialism is (and I doubt that), or Perry again is pushing Tea Bag propaganda, and the press is too lazy or too intimidated to challenge it.
I'm used to Perry embarrassing Texas. So, I'm not surprised he's parroting Dolph Briscoe's old obsession with "creeping socialism." Thankfully, we've moved beyond the 1970s, though you wouldn't know it from the Cold War rhetoric in a statement Perry released last Sunday and sound bites he repeated later in the week.
Journalists can't stop politicians from issuing statements, but they can -- and should -- challenge them and include clarifying context in their reports when statements and sound bites push outright lies. Last week, the Associated Press and others quoted him (without questioning or providing context) saying, the legislation "crosses over into the line of socialism."
Socialism, for anyone who slept through 11th grade, is an economic system where the means of production are owned either by the government or directly by the workers. The Socialist Party USA actually opposed the reform bill because it does just the opposite.
Obama and the Democratic Congress rejected a socialist approach when they removed the public option, which would have put the federal government in competition with for-profit companies. That effectively preserved the American insurance industry - and the longstanding market structure that supports it - as a conglomeration of regulated, shareholder-owned corporations.
Don't believe me? Go to the NYSE; they are all still there: Aetna, Cigna, etc... There is no new federal program like Medicare or Social Security to compete in the marketplace with private insurers -- much less replace them. (It does expand Medicaid, the federal-state partnership in place since 1965 to provide insurance for the poor, but people on Medicaid are not potential buyers for market-priced insurance.) It's simply a disgrace for Perry to mislead Texans who trust him, and it's a disappointment for journalists who know better to allow him to use their access to the public and the credibility of their organizations to spread the "socialist" lie.
What I think we're seeing is Perry trying to creep out of the corner Congressional Republicans have created for anyone running on their ticket this year. Their saber rattling about repealing the legislation is just trash talk and fund-raising fodder that raises further questions about their credibility. They know, and so do we, that there is no way they can flip enough seats to get the 2/3 majority in the House and Senate they would need to override Obama's veto of anything designed to repeal this bill.
And frankly, anyone who has ever worked on a campaign at any significant level can see that barring something unforeseen it's a huge mistake for Republicans to make health care their signature national issue. Political campaigns aren't about trying to change anyone's mind or core values. That's foolish; it just doesn't happen. Campaigns are about convincing a majority of voters that the issues most important to them the day they vote are the issues they think your party is best prepared to handle.
In political parlance, taxes, the economy and defense are considered "Republican issues." Education, the environment, human services (like health care) are considered "Democratic issues." If the midterm elections end up being about health care, conventional wisdom says, the narrative foundation favors Democrats. That is why I think Republicans eventually will try to shift the narrative to the economy, perhaps unemployment.
Bill White is the first Democrat in more than a decade with a real chance to win statewide in Texas, but he is going to have to be almost perfect to do it. His chances increase if the campaign narrative centers on health care and he is smart enough to use it to his advantage. His changes skyrocket if education joins health care as a top tier issue.
The Austin American-Statesman reported this week that Texas has the highest rate (25.1 percent) of uninsured residents in the nation. The number of Texas businesses that offer insurance to employees since Perry came into office dropped from 53 percent in 2000 to 49 percent in 2007. And per-worker spending on insurance increased at a faster pace in Texas between 2000 and 2007 than it did nationally. (Here is a detailed overview of how Health Care Reform will affect Texas. It has 27 footnotes to document information that comes almost entirely from nonpartisan sources such as the American Medical Association, Kaiser Health Facts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
Health Care is not a winning issue for Perry, which is why he's selling the "socialist" scarecrow. He's trying to reframe the issue, and he is using demagoguery to do it. You certainly aren't hearing him say: "Let's repeal the annual and lifetime caps on insurance reimbursement!" Or "Hey, I promise to restore the insurance companies' right to refuse to treat your pre-existing conditions and drop your coverage when you get sick!"
Add the recent brouhaha at the Texas State Board of Education, and the political gods have handed White a real opening.
The question is whether White can package those issues for voters so they draw simple distinctions between him and Perry that are consistent with White's own record. And whether news reporters continue to let Perry get away with terms like "socialism," which misrepresent the truth, inflame public sentiment and question the credibility of the governor and news organizations that are covering this aspect of his campaign.