Obamacare Lives After Dying 1,000 Deaths

Myths about the law persist.
The law continually defied the doomsayers. Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Public opinion and media scholar Jonathan Ladd has a good, though speculative, point about the many near-death experiences of the Affordable Care Act:

…Republican political elites and major conservative media didn't just alert their supporters that this was a major possible turning point. Rather, at basically every point I highlighted, they declared the ACA definitively dead. It's amazing how many premature touchdown dances the opponents of a single law have performed. The conservative media's reaction to the ACA's near death experiences helps us better understand public opinion on health reform. Political scientists know that one of the strongest determinants of the public's preferences is the rhetoric of politicians and elite media figures from one's own party. When a law has been over-and-over declared dead by elites you trust, yet it still somehow persists, it is less surprising that you think something illegitimate is going on, it was enacted by devious underhanded tactics, or that it still is a disaster and will never be implemented. The intersection of the ACA's near death experiences and the conservative media's coverage of them has surely enhanced polarization and conspiracy theorizing on this issue among the mass public.

Some supporters of health-care reform have been even-handed in documenting aspects of the “declared-dead” rhetoric (Jonathan Cohn), others have done so gleefuly (Jed Lewison). As Ladd points out, however, the idea that Obamacare was dead goes back to the Supreme Court case, final passage of the bill and even the original passage of the measure by the Senate.

This may explain, as Ladd says, why myths about the law are so strong. For example, there apparently remains a widespread belief that it passed in some underhanded or devious way, which simply isn't true (Unorthodox? Yes, but only in the sense that virtually all major laws these days take unorthodox routes through Congress).

Meanwhile, the implementation of the ACA probably has been covered better than any law that came before. Health-care reporters such as Cohn and Sarah Kliff (and many others), along with blogging economists and public policy scholars, have allowed readers to understand what’s happening. Not all the best insights have come from reform supporters; Philip Klein has been particularly good at applying a healthy (but reality-based) skepticism of administration facts and figures (a skepticism shared, fortunately, by many ACA supporters).

Yet the excellent reporting and analysis lives alongside some mind-boggling myth-making, from “death panels” to the new claims that the administration is making up enrollment numbers.

It’s certainly possible to continue to believe the law was a bad idea even if one has a reality-based understanding of what it actually is doing. But over and over again, leading Republican voices have chosen to use flat-out misinformation against ACA. The only thing I’d question about Ladd's analysis is that so much of the rhetoric bordering on conspiracy theory has come from the Republican-aligned media itself, not from the mass public. It’s no wonder that those who get much of their news from those sources wind up believing things that just aren’t so, including the idea of the law's coming demise.

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