The award for "Most destructive effect on public discourse by a single person" for the 2000s, so far, goes to Dick "no doubt" Cheney. ("Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Cheney, speech to national VFW Convention, August 26, 2002.) Of course, this is a career-achievement award, not limited to this one event.
My nominee for the winner in the 1990s would be Elizabeth "Betsy" McCaughey. At various stages in her career she has been a banker, a Republican politician, and a staffer at conservative think tanks, but she entered the public stage in the mid-1990s in the guise of a dispassionate, independent researcher who considered it her duty to inform the public about the dire threats it faced. Come to think of it, that is more or less the guise Cheney took in warning about the threat from Iraq.
In McCaughey's case, the equivalent of weapons of mass destruction was the original Clinton Health Reform plan. In 1994 she wrote a cover story in the New Republic "revealing" a number of hidden dangers in the Clinton plan that less careful analysts had somehow missed. Unfortunately for McCaughey, most of what she wrote was false. Unfortunately for the Clintons, most of what she claimed was echoed uncritically and became part of the conventional wisdom of why the bill couldn't pass.
After the jump, a passage from my 1995 Atlantic article "A Triumph of Misinformation" about McCaughey's article and its effects. More on this topic in my 1996 book Breaking the News -- and especially about why sloppy press coverage did as much to thwart health-care reform under the Clintons as it did to bring on the Iraq war under Cheney and Bush.
Why bring this up now? Because McCaughey has sprung up again to "reveal" another hidden danger in another Democratic administration's plans. Buried inside the new stimulus bill, she has discovered, are new big-brother tactics similar to those she warned against years ago. In a recent Bloomberg.com opinion column she wrote:
One new bureaucracy, the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology, will monitor treatments to make sure your doctor is doing what the federal government deems appropriate and cost effective....Hospitals and doctors that are not "meaningful users" of the new system will face penalties. "Meaningful user" isn't defined in the bill. That will be left to the HHS secretary, who will be empowered to impose "more stringent measures of meaningful use over time" (511, 518, 540-541)
For what is wrong with her "analysis" this time, check out this in The Washington Monthly, which also has a chronology of how the (right wing) press -- led by Fox, Limbaugh, and Drudge -- is again picking up flatly disprovable lies. (Eg, the "new" bureaucracy she warns about already exists, and was established under GW Bush.)
Seriously, every one of McCaughey's statements about public policy from this day forward should be subjected to the "Oh yes, and how did it turn out last time?" test. We are in OJ territory here. Stop this new claim before it gets real traction.
From "A Triumph of Misinformation":
Much of the problem for the plan seemed, at least in Washington, to come not even from mandatory alliances but from an article by Elizabeth McCaughey, then of the Manhattan Institute, published in The New Republic last February. The article's working premise was that McCaughey, with no ax to grind and no preconceptions about health care, sat down for a careful reading of the whole Clinton bill. Appalled at the hidden provisions she found, she felt it her duty to warn people about what the bill might mean. The title of her article was "No Exit," and the message was that Bill and Hillary Clinton had proposed a system that would lock people in to government-run care. "The law will prevent you from going outside the system to buy basic health coverage you think is better," McCaughey wrote in the first paragraph. "The doctor can be paid only by the plan, not by you."
George Will immediately picked up this warning, writing in Newsweek that "it would be illegal for doctors to accept money directly from patients, and there would be 15-year jail terms for people driven to bribery for care they feel they need but the government does not deem 'necessary.'" The "doctors in jail" concept soon turned up on talk shows and was echoed for the rest of the year.
These claims, McCaughey's and Will's, were simply false. McCaughey's pose of impartiality was undermined by her campaign as the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor of New York soon after her article was published. I was less impressed with her scholarly precision after I compared her article with the text of the Clinton bill. Her shocked claim that coverage would be available only for "necessary" and "appropriate" treatment suggested that she had not looked at any of today's insurance policies. In claiming that the bill would make it impossible to go outside the health plan or pay doctors on one's own, she had apparently skipped past practically the first provision of the bill (Sec. 1003), which said,
"Nothing in this Act shall be construed as prohibiting the following: (1) An individual from purchasing any health care services."
It didn't matter. The White House issued a point-by-point rebuttal, which The New Republic did not run. Instead it published a long piece by McCaughey attacking the White House statement. The idea of health policemen stuck.