Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Republicans Stumble on Flawed Obamacare `Facts'

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

The question of whether politicians believe their own propaganda is always fascinating. For several years, we have witnessed an alarming trend: Republican politicians, pundits and other party insiders getting trapped inside a closed conservative information feedback loop (I think the phrase is Jonathan Chait's) in which they lose track of the difference between their rhetoric and the truth.

There was no better demonstration than the House hearing on the Affordable Care Act yesterday.

The sequence began with a the release of a surveyof insurance companies commissioned by House Republicans that supposedly showed that only two-thirds of Obamacare signups were paying premiums, and thus fully qualified as enrollees. It was rapidly discovered that the survey was poorly constructed (for example, it counted people who hadn't yet been billed as nonpayments ).

This could be just a story of ineptitude. The House Energy and Commerce Committee wouldn't be the first to construct a survey poorly. Or it could be a display of lazy mendacity, stemming from a desire to come up with something that will play well in the Republican-aligned media, even if that something would be easy to tear down. Fox News and conservative talk radio will swallow it and keep running with it even after it's discredited -- so why bother to find talking points that stand up to scrutiny?

But yesterday, a House subcommittee invited insurance company executives to testify and, according to the Hill, Republicans on the panel were "visibly exasperated, as insurers failed to confirm certain claims about ObamaCare, such as the committee's allegation that one-third of federal exchange enrollees have not paid their first premium."

We don't have to rely on reporter interpretations (here's another one). It made no sense to hold the hearing unless Republicans were (foolishly) confident that the testimony would support their talking point, instead of undermining it.

The only plausible explanation is that closed feedback loop. Either members of the committee managed not to be aware of the criticisms of their survey, or they mistakenly wrote off the criticism as partisan backbiting.

Being trapped in a bubble doesn't matter much when it concerns only a single House subcommittee hearing; it matters quite a bit when it extends to governing capacity. A party incapable of seeing outside of its own propaganda bubble is unlikely to be able to govern competently.

All of us -- whether liberal, conservative, or whatever -- are at riskof believing only what we want to believe. But one can react to that risk in different ways. Over the last four decades, Republicans have reacted by building an extensive aligned media that has all sorts of incentives to cocoon itself, while also building an extensive ideology of opposition to the "neutral" media and, at times, to facts.

Skepticism of any presidency is a great quality, and it's healthy for the system for critics to attempt to poke holes in, for example, the Obama administration's claims about ACA implementation. But in this case, what began as sensible and healthy skepticism about the enrollment numbers morphed into the certainty that millions of people were filing applications to purchase insurance they didn't want. And this isn't an isolated case either on health care reform or in criticisms of the administration in general. The bottom line is that losing the ability to see reality makes Republicans incapable of constructive oversight, and ill-equipped to govern.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at