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Political Animal

Death Care

By Brian Morton | Posted 8/26/2009

Years ago, during the Republican effort to eliminate the estate tax, which is paid primarily by the heirs of the wealthy, the GOP linguistic strategist and pollster Frank Luntz pushed the idea that the Republicans should refer to it as a "death tax." In a Los Angeles Times opinion column where Luntz all but pleaded guilty to being a primary advocate of the term, he said "For example, why not use the term 'death tax' for the taxes paid on an estate? . . . [if] I'm successful and forget to hire smart accountants, I may pay a tax. What else would you call that other than a death tax--a 'permanent sleep tax'?"

Well, no. For starters, as someone could have told Mr. Luntz, he wouldn't be paying a thing, as he would be dead. His heirs, who would benefit from inheriting an estate they likely did little or nothing to earn (think Paris Hilton, for example), would pay the tax on the estate. Hence the name. This is why America differs from Europe, with its old and entrenched class system. Not for nothing do conservatives constantly remind the world that this is the "land of opportunity."

In the right-wing scare tactic playbook, fear of death is the tool that comes right after fear of socialism. Back in 1961, Ronald Reagan released an album titled Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine. Its goal? To defeat the congressional bill that eventually became one of the most popular and successful government programs of the 20th century: Medicare. Between Medicare and Social Security--two programs so popular they have been termed "the third rail of American politics"--conservatives and libertarians wishing to cut the heart out of government and make medical and retirement issues subject to the free market have been soundly beaten by liberal ideas. You'd think they'd learn.

So with a (nominally) liberal president in the White House and a presumed Democratic majority in Congress (if one can call senators Ben Nelson, Blanche Lambert Lincoln, and Mary Landrieu "Democrats"), if there's any one thing the American conservative movement does not want to see, it's another wide-reaching successful government program affecting the majority of the nation. With the success of a public option for health care, there is that much larger a pool of money unavailable to the private sector from which to make a profit. And when there are those kinds of billions at stake, the big guns and the long knives will be out in force. Which is why we are hearing ridiculous lies about "death panels."

Former New York lieutenant governor Betsy McCaughey, one of the prime movers in the successful effort to kill health-care reform during the Clinton administration, is one of the main propagators of the "death panel" scare tactic. Once again, a simple provision in one of the bills currently before Congress that would pay for voluntary Medicare-funded counseling on end-of-life issues for seniors. Considering that 100 percent of people born die, this sounds like smart planning to me.

Yet this is one more example of the "scare, lie, and buy time" strategy ginned up by the allied forces of the Republicans, the insurance companies, and the for-profit health care industry.

There's also the famous "fear of furriners," where the message-meisters get to bank-shot their misrepresentations off another single-issue hot-button segment of voters: anti-immigrant conservatives. This meme, promoted by Iowa Rep. Steve King (R), claims that more than "5,600,000 Illegal Aliens May Be Covered Under Obamacare." If there's anything conservatives love, it's stoking the fear that some undeserving brown person might be benefiting from your hard-earned tax dollars. But of course, the beginning of Section 246 of the House bill (HR 3200) states very clearly: "NO FEDERAL PAYMENT FOR UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS."

There's really not enough room in this column (if not this entire newspaper) to debunk every misleading or hyperbolic claim made by the opponents of reform. Like a game of Whac-A-Mole, as soon as you bash one down, another pops up. The right's goal is to delay reform, with the eventual goal of killing it. There's just too much money (and profit) at stake for anything less. As long as you can take money from healthy people to ostensibly cover them with medical insurance, and reject or deny coverage to those who are sick, you've got a business model that is steadier than anyone's on the planet with the exception of the funeral business.

What is so wrong with the idea of expanding Medicare-style coverage to everyone? Where the government doesn't pick your doctor, where the coverage can't be taken away, and if you're poor, subsidies will help you afford to be covered?

But the forces gathered to defeat health-care reform (and defeat the possibility of any successful program proposed by this president) all have too much to lose to be honest. The GOP wants to deny any kind of political success to this president, and the market forces that will lose billions of dollars in potential profits from the status quo will ally themselves with anyone opposed to change. The way things are going, it shouldn't be too long before we hear them talking about "socialist death care." It's all they have left.

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