Facts: A Democrat's Weapon

For the Democratic Party, the health care debate has become an exercise in fact checking.

As misunderstandings of President Obama's health care plan for a public option (which only exists in loose form) abound at town hall meetings across the country, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has focused its efforts on fact-checking the statements of health care's reform's opponents--more so than spreading any pro-reform message of its own. Last week, the DCCC built a website, HealthCareFactCheck.com, incorporating fact-checks on health care "myths" propagated by Republicans from PolitiFact and FactCheck.org (along with a few pro-reform talking points for good measure).

Now, after Sarah Palin suggested Obama's plan would lead to "death panels" on her Facebook page, the DCCC is selling "fact-check cards" to its supporters, asking them to "help us fight the fear tactics." You get five of them for a donation of any size; the DCCC made the pitch in an email from Director Jon Vogel entitled "Palin's disgusting attack."

It's both a messaging strategy and a fundraising ploy, one that the DCCC hopes will resonate with its support base.

The DCCC needs that support, because its people are some of the ones getting beaten up (figuratively--you have to be clear these days) at those town-halls on YouTube: moderate Democrats with conservative contingents in their districts. Some of those seats gave Democrats their congressional majority in 2006; they'll have to be retained if the Democrats want to stay in power.

But as times may be trying for a moderate Democratic Rep who backs Obama on health care, the DCCC is seeking to take the misinformation on the other side of the health care debate--and all the questions about intellectual honesty that accompany a statement like Palin's--and turn it into capital. Capital not only to propel Obama's health care initiative, but to propel Democratic competitveness in the 2010 cycle.

The hope, apparently, is that saying questionable things about health care will come back to bite conservatives in 2010--or at least to let Democrats hold onto their congressional edge, which might be expected to shrink after two dominant years in 2006 and 2008.

As much energy as conservatives have generated, the town-halls have left liberals feeling more like they're in the right. They, and moderates too, don't want to be associated with the shouting, sign-waving, and yelling about things that aren't true.

Hence, Democrats are playing the critic; the frenzy of the other side has become their fuel. It's a passive strategy to analyze what your opponents are saying--to fact check them--rather than beating your own drum. But as the id of health care opposition has run wild at town-halls, it might be better to signify the super-ego...to absorb the arc of that energy when it's misguided, to criticize it and watch it die--to hope that health care's opponents do themselves in.

Though the DCCC's fact checking may be tainted by its own partisan political intentions, veracity and weight are lent by the use of independent PolitiFact and FactCheck.org (though some of the fact checking cites other sources).

The way "facts" happen, according to literary theorist Stanley Fish, is not an objective process. Texts and events incur communities of understanding, wherein things are silently agreed upon among groups of people. In this country, there is a community in which Obama's health care reform would lead to death panels; there's a larger community in which it wouldn't.

The Democratic strategy, now, is to broaden its own interpretive community, in which there's a shared truth that reform would make health care better, not by telling people that's so, but by deconstructing the other side, by making it less appealing and, in "fact," totally unbelievable. Who wouldn't want to support Obama if everything his opponents say is false?

To score points, they don't even have to make their own plan look good. The impact of the DCCC's strategy is two-fold: it supplies supporters with some verified facts and talking points--weapons in the national argument--but it also makes the other side look untruthful and bad.

Democrats are the ones pushing the plan, and August began with conservatives criticizing it. The wheel has turned: conservative opposition (at town-halls, especially) is now an object of discussion, and Democrats have become critics in the health care debate.