The Health-Care Intelligence Test

We have everything from smart bombs to smart cars, but do we have smart voters?

This is the question President Barack Obama was forced to address at a news conference following the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. It’s 9,469 miles from Washington D.C., but not too far for the long arm of the U.S. microphone-wielding media.

The question asked was actually more specific than that, and more pointed: Did the administration proponents of health-care reform think the American voters are stupid?

Like any smart politician would, President Obama said no.

He dismissed a just-surfaced video showing Jonathan Gruber, an MIT professor and outside adviser on health care, who said the Obama administration obscured the financing of the law in order to get it passed.

“If you have a law that makes explicit that healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it wouldn’t have passed,” Gruber said on the video. “Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage and, basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever. But basically that was really critical to getting the thing to pass.”

Obama said that such an attitude was not representative of him or of his administration. He also noted, correctly, that “I think it’s fair to say there was not a provision in the health-care law that was not extensively debated and was fully transparent — it was a tough debate.”

He has the scars to prove it. The Republicans fought his program in a titanic struggle that could have ruined anybody’s health. Legions of adversaries of his health-care proposals scrutinized it for every possible flaw or fissure that could bring the country to its knees economically, destroy the Constitution or deliver the fate of beloved parents into the uncaring hands of cost-conscious bureaucrats. If any fact about it remained unknown, it would be a tribute to the genius of its supporters.

In fact, there is something disingenuous about the whole brouhaha. If Americans failed to understand Obamacare, it wasn’t due to the evil manipulations of MIT professors; not to lack of information, but rather an overabundance of it.

The complexity of the issues involved could have confused the most astute and responsible citizen. No one, even with multiple degrees in medicine, economics and political science, could fully comprehend, and certainly not predict, the ultimate outcome of Obamacare.

Although the rules of political comportment compelled Obama to deny any disdain of the intelligence of the American voter, the voters themselves are less inhibited. A Rasmussen phone survey (conducted November 12–13) found that one out of three voters said yes when asked if they agree that “the American people are too stupid to understand the true costs associated with Obamacare.”

Ordinary citizens are not alone in their intellectual inadequacy when it comes to Obamacare. Many members of Congress apparently didn’t read the 2,700-page health-care bill before voting for it since they subsequently expressed surprise about some of the things in it. As then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously quipped, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.”

Besides, who’s kidding whom? There isn’t a major political campaign, regardless of ideology, in which comments like Professor Gruber’s aren’t heard from time to time. The speakers just aren’t dumb enough to be caught saying them on a video.

The modern science of marketing candidates reduces the electorate to consumers of short, easily digestible sound-bites, attack ads and showy debates that usually conceal more than they reveal about the candidates and the issues. Those who make a living from it are prone to the occupational hazard of looking down on the consumers.

And it doesn’t help matters when only two out of five voters can name the three branches of the federal government. And studies show that 49 percent of Americans think the president has the authority to suspend the Constitution.

Taking advantage of voters’ emotions, prejudices, ignorance and gullibility did not begin with the notorious “selling of the president” [Nixon] in 1968, either. In 1964, the Johnson for President campaign devastated Republican challenger Barry Goldwater with a cynical distortion of the latter’s nuclear policy, particularly with the infamous “daisy ad,” depicting one of the future victims of a Goldwater presidency — an innocent little girl picking petals off a daisy, slated for thermonuclear annihilation.

Nor did American politics have to wait for scientific polling and mass communications to manipulate voters.

Sen. Stephen Douglas accused Abraham Lincoln of being a drunk — claiming that he could “ruin [consume] more liquor than all the boys in town together.” As Douglas well knew, Lincoln did not drink.

The Jefferson-Adams presidential campaign of 1800 was a festival of mutual vilification. A Connecticut newspaper warned that electing Jefferson would create a nation where “murder, robbery … will openly be taught and practiced.” A pro-Jefferson journalist wrote that Adams was a rageful, lying, warmongering fellow; a “repulsive pedant” and “gross hypocrite,” a hideous … character.” It was all typical of the period.

Not all American voters are stupid, and not all politicians are contemptuous of them. But if voters want the respect of their elected officials, then they will have to earn it. They can start by learning to name the three branches of the federal government — executive, legislative and… what was the other one? Oh, yes, the judiciary.

That was a close one.