WASHINGTON — Among the many rules I grew up with, two stand out. The first was never call someone a liar, which was considered the worst possible character indictment one could issue. The accuser had best be prepared to fight or be fleet of foot.
The other was a dictum so oft-repeated that it is permanently tattooed on my brain: “If you’ll lie by omission, you’ll lie by commission.”
This first rule sheds light on why it was so shocking when in 2009 Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted, “You lie!” as President Barack Obama was addressing Congress. Beyond an insult to decorum, it was widely viewed as another tipping point in our descent into incivility.
Now that the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, has been released upon the land — sort of — Wilson is being regaled in Republican quarters as the voice of Cassandra, though his outburst was prompted by Obama’s saying the ACA wouldn’t insure illegal immigrants.
“The big lie,” as the president’s broken Obamacare promise is now known, was that everyone could keep his or her doctor and insurance policy under the ACA. No one, Americans were justified in inferring, would be remotely inconvenienced by Obamacare. Instead, the reality is well-known: Millions are expected to lose their insurance policies, while others will see their premiums skyrocket.
It is still jarring to my adult psyche to impugn another, especially the president of the United States, as a liar, so I won’t. But it is not possible to pretend that the American people have been told the truth. Nor is it possible to pretend that Obama has been completely honest.
The question is, how much dishonesty from a president is tolerable? How can a dishonest president lead a nation? The truth is, if the president were not immune from such things, the American people could file a class-action suit on grounds they were sold a product under false pretenses. In the private sector, we call that fraud.
Now the White House tells us that Obama always meant you could keep the insurance policy you like if it met the standards of the ACA. Apparently, plenty of people involved with the law, including the House minority whip, Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who recently said so, have known for at least three years that between 40 percent and 67 percent of those in the individual market would lose their policies.
Press secretary Jay Carney explained: “What the president said and what everybody said all along is that there are going to be changes brought about by the Affordable Care Act that create minimum standards of coverage, minimum services that every insurance plan has to provide. ... So it’s true that there are existing health care plans on the individual market that don’t meet those minimum standards and therefore do not qualify for the Affordable Care Act.”
Well, as the guardian of the Emerald City gates said to Dorothy: “Bust my buttons! Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”
We know why. This sin of omission wasn’t an accidental oversight. It was a feint because many Americans wouldn’t have followed the wizard had they known the truth.
There’s a reason the ACA implemented the popular aspects of the bill first — allowing parents to cover their children until age 26 and eliminating their children’s pre-existing condition barrier to insurance coverage — before the 2012 election and postponed the nasty news until enough people were hooked on Obamacare’s sugar. And, of course, after the president was re-elected. This is what Republicans were referring to when they wanted to impede the law before the rollout because people might like it. Sugar is addictive after all.
Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau tried to explain otherwise. The president kept repeating the promise — some 23 times — because the White House was trying to keep things simple so as not to confuse people with too many details, he said. This is not only insulting on its face but is also not precisely true. Some might have been alarmed by the details, but they wouldn’t have been confused. Either the White House doesn’t have faith in the people or it doesn’t have faith in its own plan.
To sum up, the American people were duped; the administration did not misspeak, as The New York Times editorialized. The administration knowingly misled with a false promise and a deliberate omission. Worse, they did it for your own good because you might be confused by the truth. Call it what you will.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.