Bob Franken

Republican Health Care Mailer: Is There No “Honor Among Thieves”?


Even in the world of brutal partisanship, there is supposed to be “honor among thieves.” In gutter politics, that means there are some unwritten rules about stretching the truth. Distortion is OK. Outright lies are not. Tell that to the Republican National Committee.

Critics complain that in the health care debate, the RNC, under Chairman Michael Steele, has shown it is immune to any sense of shame: It tries to terrify anybody who pays attention with claims that are outrageously untrue.

The latest is contained in a questionnaire accompanying a letter from Steele. The RNC argues that under health care reform proposals, the government could check voter registration, “prompting fears that GOP voters might be discriminated against for medical treatment in a Democrat-imposed healthcare rationing system.” The questionnaire goes on to ask: “Does this possibility concern you?”

Fears?! Whose fears? Apparently those who would be inflamed by this letter. Thanks to The Columbian of Vancouver, Wash., we’ve learned that the RNC is now saying it went too far. A Republican spokeswoman admits the questionnaire might have been “inartfully worded.” What was “inartful” about it was the fact that the party, with Steele’s apparent blessing, got caught spreading its toxic slander. Of course, the Democrats are calling this another case of Republican “falsehoods, fabrications and outright lies.”

What it really is is a “push poll,” a time-dishonored tactic in which one side asks questions using a dubious premise designed to “push” people to their side. It’s sleazy, but it has been used by the low-lifes from all political persuasions. This one pushes too far. It violates that “honor among thieves” code.

All this presents a dilemma for the journalist. We really do want to be fair. We really do want to present the different perspectives and arguments. But when one side makes an obviously conscious decision to use language like “death panels” and “euthanasia” to work their unwitting followers into a frenzy, it becomes impossible to balance the arguments.

This latest example comes from the same Michael Steele who tried to explain away the inconsistencies of his so-called “Bill of Rights” for seniors by further confusing not only the Obama proposals but his own positions on Medicare. It was scare tactic, plain and simple.

The way this game is supposed to be run is that when a player gets caught in an outright lie, he is supposed to get out of the dirty pool. Steele seems to be repeatedly diving right back in.

So now we have this “inartful” questionnaire, which is stretching the downward limits of the game to a new low. Maybe what we’re discovering is that, in this case, there really is no honor among political thieves.

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