Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Err on the Side of Life? Nope. That and Other Lessons from Another GOP Debate

Last night’s Republican (or should that be Tea Party?) debate featured lots of fireworks and lots of statements and ideas that are worth discussing when time permits. But one statement in particular really caught my attention and, in turn, led to some other, hopefully related thoughts. In response to criticism over his executive order to mandate vaccination of middle school girls with a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, Gov. Rick Perry said: “I am always going to err on the side of life”. I think that it is a sentiment that most of us would readily agree with. But…

Unfortunately, while it made for a good sound bite for Perry, it completely flew in the face of facts. Recall my post from last Thursday Yeah, Rah, Death Penalty! in which I described how Perry had allowed a man to be executed by the State of Texas in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence that the man did not commit the crime for which he had been convicted. If Perry is “always going to err on the side of life”, then shouldn’t he have stayed the execution in order for courts to reconsider the evidence and determine if the man had, in fact, been wrongly convicted on the basis of theories “disproven by modern science”?

And of course we also have to wonder why debate moderators won’t ask Perry about this incident or why he fired the commission looking into whether an innocent man was executed. Like so many other issues, it seems as if the debate moderators simply refuse to do much more than ask the superficial questions for which the candidates are prepared to offer pandering and self-serving responses. Why not ask the hard-hitting follow-up questions, especially on issues with which many voters may not have familiarity.

How would voters really respond if they understood how cavalier Rick Perry appears to be about the fact that he may have allowed an innocent man to be executed?

How would voters really respond if Mitt Romney were forced to answer precisely how many jobs he’d eliminated or how much money he’d made at the expense of those jobs?

How would voters really respond if Newt Gingrich were forced to explain how he could have an affair, while his wife was ill and he was presiding over impeachment proceedings against President Clinton for lying about a blowjob?

How would voters really respond if Michele Bachmann were forced to answer as to all the completely false statements that she’s made (and continues to make) or was forced to finally tell us exactly which members of Congress she believes have anti-American views or had to address the federal funds her husband’s business collected for “reparative” therapy?

How would voters really respond if Rick Santorum had to explain why it was acceptable for his wife to have a life-saving abortion but that same treatment should not be available to other women?

How would voters really respond if John Huntsman were asked to read aloud his fawning letter in praise of President Obama?

And beyond these sorts of harder questions, why is that debate moderators either aren’t prepared to —or simply won’t — call out a lie on the spot? For example, in last night’s debate, Perry claimed that the 2009 stimulus bill “created zero jobs”. This was not the first time that Perry or other Republicans have made this claim. So why wasn’t debate moderator Wolf Blitzer ready with analysis of this claim similar to that done by the non-partisan Politifact.org:

[I]n a report released March 18, 2011, the president’s Council of Economic Advisers estimated that between 2.5 million and 3.6 million jobs were created or saved by the stimulus through the fourth quarter of 2010.
Separately, the council’s report cited four independent analyses by the Congressional Budget Office and three private economic analysis companies. Here’s what the groups found:
• CBO: Between 1.3 million and 3.6 million jobs saved or created.
• IHS/Global Insight: 2.45 million jobs saved or created.
• Macroeconomic Advisers: 2.3 million jobs saved or created.
• Moody’s Economy.com: 2.5 million jobs saved or created.
Note the language "created or saved," which means not every one of those more than a million jobs count as "created," as Perry said.
But certainly more than zero. Ask Billy Weston. 
Perry said "the first round of stimulus ... created zero jobs." We say Pants on Fire.

Or, when Bachmann claimed that “President Obama stole over $500 billion out of Medicare to switch it over to Obamacare” (emphasis added), why wasn’t Blitzer ready, again with analysis similar to that done by Politifact.org:

There is a small amount of truth in her statement in that future savings from Medicare are planned to offset new costs created by the law. But the law attempts to curtail the rapid growth of future Medicare spending, not cut current funding. Additionally, the money was not "stolen." Congress reduced spending on a program through its normal legislative process. That kind of rhetoric is deceptive, and it undermines Bachmann's basic point. We rate her statement Mostly False.

You would think that CNN just might have the resources and expertise to be ready, in advance, to respond to these sorts of statements.

Or consider Bachmann’s claim in a previous debate that a business owner told her that he had to fire employees because “Obamacare” would require him to provide insurance. Why didn’t the NBC moderators note that claim was impossible because the mandate in question doesn’t begin until 2014? Instead, they do the electorate a disservice by allowing this statement to stand and leaving voters with the impression that “Obamacare” is, indeed, causing businesses to fire people today.

Or there was Bachmann’s claim (and I’m not going to apologize for picking on Bachmann) that the HPV vaccine caused retardation. Again, why wasn’t Blitzer able to respond, with something like this:

“Mental retardation” typically takes place in a pre- or neo-natal event. Autism becomes apparent in the first couple of years of life — and primarily affects boys. Gardasil vaccinations take place among girls between 9-12 years of age. Even assuming that this anecdote is arguably true, it wouldn’t be either “mental retardation” or autism, but brain damage.

The FDA has received no reports of brain damage as a result of HPV vaccines Gardasil and Cervarix. Among the reports that correlate seriously adverse reactions to either, the FDA lists blood clots, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and 68 deaths during the entire run of the drugs. The FDA found no causal connection to any of these serious adverse events and found plenty of contributing factors to all — and all of the events are exceedingly rare.

The “mental retardation” argument is a rehash of the thoroughly discredited notion that vaccines containing thimerasol caused a rapid increase in diagnosed autism cases. That started with a badly-botched report in Lancet that allowed one researcher to manipulate a ridiculously small sample of twelve cases in order to reach far-sweeping conclusions about thimerasol. That preservative hasn’t been included in vaccines for years, at least not in the US, and the rate of autism diagnoses remain unchanged.

The most charitable analysis that can be offered in this case for Bachmann is that she got duped into repeating a vaccine-scare urban legend on national television. It looks more like Bachmann sensed that she had won a point and wanted to go in for the kill, didn’t bother to check the facts, and didn’t care that she was stoking an anti-vaccination paranoid conspiracy theory, either.  Neither shines a particularly favorable light on Bachmann.

These are just a few examples. And they are examples of the kind of charges that Republicans have been making for years. A competent debate moderator or a debate moderator truly interested in being sure that voters really learned about the issues rather than simply offering a launching pad for debunked talking points, would be prepared — and willing — to call out a candidate for lying (or misstating facts or statistics or whatever).

And when an audience member suggested that a hypothetical uninsured patient should be allowed to die, Blitzer should have followed that up by asking each of the candidates if they agreed that the government should have no responsibility and that if the patient had no insurance, then the state should, indeed, allow that patient to die.

A principal purpose of debates is to allow voters to learn about the candidates and their stances on the relevant issues. But we need to be sure that the debates are not platforms from which lies can be spread without comment. When a debate moderator — and recall that most of the debate moderators consider themselves to be journalists — hears a lie or falsehood, the moderator should not just sit back or hope that another candidate will point out the lie; no, in the interests of professional journalism and the public at large, the moderator should challenge the lie and demand that the candidate offer support for the statement or retract it. Now that might make debates a bit more useful.

Sorry for being a bit unfocused on this post, but I just sort of hit the issues as I thought of them.

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