Political hyperbole from Jefferson to Limbaugh

July 4, 1826 – 50 years after America’s first Independence Day – Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died hours apart.  Adams and Jefferson had joined together to achieve independence, and Adams’ final (but incorrect) words were, “Thomas Jefferson lives.”

As a polarized nation with many controversies, including health care reform, it feels good to recognize these common efforts. But that unity is only part of their relationship and the American story.

Declaring and winning independence gave way to governing. The first political structure, the Articles of Confederation, which called itself “a firm league of friendship,” had too weak a national government to work. After the Constitution was written and put into place, Adams and Jefferson increasingly disagreed.

When they ran against each other in 1800, campaign rhetoric got rough. Jefferson’s supporters said that President Adams had a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” An advocate for Adams claimed that if Jefferson won, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

There’s never been a golden age of civility in America. Rather, there have been periods of profound discord and others when cooperation held.

But we can try to deal with each other with respect and honesty.

Unfortunately, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), opponents have all too frequently chosen hyperbole and misinformation.

In a claim rated “False” by Politifact, Mitt Romney said, “Obamacare adds trillions to our deficits and national debt.” In fact, the Congressional Budget Office found it reduces the deficit, while delivering ten times more tax credits than payments. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh and others claim the ACA’s taxes are the “largest in the history of the world.” This is so far off, it’s rated “Pants on Fire.”

Maine Senate candidate Andrew Ian Dodge revived the death panel lie, saying boards of bureaucrats will decide, “this person is too old and too sick, we won’t treat them.”

Myths about the mandate abound. As Gov. Romney explained in 2008, it is a freeloader fee for those who “can afford to buy [insurance]” and tells them “don’t be free-riders and pass on the cost of your health care to everybody else.”

Maine Republican Senate nominee Charles Summers said he disagreed with the Supreme Court because government shouldn’t force anyone to purchase a product. In fact, no one must buy health insurance. Under Romneycare, 1 percent choose to pay a penalty in lieu of buying insurance.

Then there’s Sarah Palin’s statement that Obamacare means “freedom dies,” reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s 1961 warning that adopting Medicare would lead to a time when we tell “our children and our children’s children, what it was like in America when men were free.”

Overheated rhetoric and misrepresentations started before the Court’s decision, but it’s time to put them aside.

Maine’s veterans and seniors have government-funded health care. Others have insurance through their jobs or because they are poor. Those without coverage – and those with — will benefit from Obamacare.

The Affordable Care Act promotes Americans’ health and liberty. Because they cannot be denied health coverage, people with pre-existing conditions will find it much easier to start their own businesses. Parents with a child born with cystic fibrosis or struck by leukemia will not go bankrupt because they ran up against lifetime limits on claims. Those citizens have greater freedom and opportunity.

In Maine, Obamacare has already supported the development of a non-profit health cooperative and a program that better monitors patients with chronic illnesses to keep them healthier and save money. It has helped finance a remarkable network of clinics, including one in Bangor providing dental care to patients from 11 counties in Maine.

In the 19th century, the lies and nastiness surrounding the 1800 campaign, along with major policy differences, led Adams and Jefferson to stop talking. Later they reconciled, starting a 14-year-long correspondence lasting until their deaths.

While policy differences about health care will never end, eventually this time of discord will calm, as America continues its political cycles and our republic lives.

Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at ASFried and at her blog, www.pollways.com.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.