The Republican stance on health care is a strange mix of muddle and mendacity. The muddle comes from the GOP's presumptive nominee for president, Mitt Romney. The mendacity is the work of conservative super PACs that are spending millions on new attack ads built around a brazen lie.
Rick Santorum was absolutely right when, during his primary battle with Mr. Romney, he said the former Massachusetts governor was "the worst Republican in the country" to pick as point man to oppose the Democrats' health care plan. That was made manifest on Thursday in the moments after the announcement of the Supreme Court decision upholding most of the Affordable Care Act. With the U.S. Capitol in the background, Mr. Romney stepped before the TV cameras and declared that on his first day as president he would start dismantling the monstrosity he calls "Obamacare." Then, he ticked off the measures he would implement to improve health care in America -- each one of them a component of the "monstrosity" he wants to kill.
The oft-noted reason Mr. Santorum called Mr. Romney a bad choice to lead this fight is that Obamacare is just a national version of Romneycare, the state plan instituted in Massachusetts under Governor Romney that now is overwhelmingly popular with the citizens of the Bay State. As a presidential candidate, Mr. Romney is forced into a position of calling evil what he once proclaimed as good -- a grand flip-flop. Either that or he is reduced to making a narrow argument that states, not the federal government, should have the responsibility for doing all these good things in health care. On the campaign trail, he has done both and the result is a muddled message.
The message from the right wing super PACs is much more clear: "Obamacare raises half a trillion in taxes on Americans!" Chief Justice John Roberts did Republicans a favor by basing the health care ruling on the taxing power of Congress. The mandate in the law that requires all Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty is constitutional, Justice Roberts said, because it is just another tax.
As a political cudgel, that little three-letter word -- T-A-X -- is every conservative's favorite. Thanks to Mr. Roberts, Republicans were suddenly on familiar ground, able once again to slam Democrats for imposing yet another tax. The super PACs with their hoard of billionaires' money wasted no time. Within 24 hours of the Supreme Court decision, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS had updated an attack ad in North Dakota to make the half-trillion-dollar tax increase claim. Just as quickly, the Koch brothers' favorite PAC, Americans for Prosperity, launched a $9 million ad campaign that calls the ACA "one of the largest tax increases in American history."
Running in 12 swing states, the voice-over in the Koch-funded ad asks, "How can we afford this tax?" The honest answer is: We can afford it because very few Americans will ever pay it. The only people who might get hit with the penalty are the miniscule number of citizens who can afford health insurance but refuse to buy it, thereby sticking the rest of us with their hospital bills when they get sick. The projected yearly amount to be raised by this penalty -- or tax -- is $6 billion. That's a long way from half-a-trillion.
Apart from the tax penalty in the mandate, there is also the fact that one way the health care plan would be paid for is by not renewing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Again in this case, they can afford it.
The scary numbers these PAC rats are throwing around are akin to the fake numbers kids invent, like "gazillion" or "bajillion," when they are trying to describe something really big. In the case of kids, they are just exaggerating. In the case of the conservative billionaires, they are simply telling a big, fat fib.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.