Soledad’s Sophistry
And the casuistry of cable-TV fact-checking.

CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien


On Monday night, CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien, guest-hosting Anderson Cooper’s show, took on Romney-campaign spokeswoman Barbara Comstock about Paul Ryan and President Obama’s treatment of Medicare cuts. Newsbusters noted this exchange because O’Brien, ostensibly a moderator on an objective news network, can be seen shuffling a printed op-ed from the rabidly liberal Talking Points Memo entitled “The Myth Of Paul Ryan The Bipartisan Leader.” TPM may be a biased outlet, but the problem is not so much that she was using their information (she was actually just using it to cite a quotation) as that she was making a partisan and dishonest case under the veneer of clarifying the issues and the facts.

She begins the segment with a description of the coming Medicare cuts in Obamacare, presumably to remind her guest of the facts and prompt a defense, that is wrong on essentially every point:

People listening to both [Mitt Romney] and [Paul Ryan] today might get the impression that they actually opposed the $700 billion cut, but in fact the congressman’s plan not only includes this cut, but instead of restoring it to the funding, he puts the same yearly cap on growth in spending per beneficiary, and unlike the president’s plan, he doesn’t put the savings back into the system. It actually uses that money to finance deficit reduction and tax cuts.

O’Brien is correct on one thing: Paul Ryan’s House budgets have preserved the reduction in the growth of Medicare spending included in Obamacare (though that’s hardly a good starting point for a real discussion of the issues like the ones that, say, the vastly more fair-minded Anderson Cooper often encourages). But here are the mistakes she makes in the above statement:

1. Mitt Romney has consistently opposed the $700 billion cut, and has pledged to restore that funding to Medicare; people would be “getting the right impression” from him, and the wrong one from O’Brien.

2. She claims that Ryan’s plan does something other than “restoring [the $700 billion] to the funding,” insinuating that Obamacare allocates the savings from the cuts to funding future Medicare obligations (i.e., the Medicare trust fund); but Obamacare spends that money on exchange subsidies, Medicaid expansion, and various other health-care expenditures.

3. Ryan’s plan might use essentially “the same yearly cap on growth in spending” as Obamacare, but it’s important that Romney’s plan would not; it would remove this cap entirely for the next ten years.

4. There is no cap on “spending per beneficiary” in any plan; it’s a global cap. Such a term doesn’t make sense in the fee-for-service system that will persist over the next ten years.

5. Ryan’s plan does “put the savings back into the system,” by restoring them to the Medicare trust fund (as a matter of budgetary reality, he might borrow from that to reduce the deficit or cut taxes, but that will leave behind government bonds which shore up Medicare’s assets and extend the trust fund’s life, which Obamacare has shortened).

6. Ryan’s plan is indeed “unlike the president’s plan,” but Obamacare takes the funding out of Medicare, or “the system,” to spend on other health-care priorities.

O’Brien’s presentation of the “facts” includes an error every dozen words, roughly. Her evasive maneuvering on the issue is further evident later on, after Comstock begins to explain why current seniors and everyone over 55 need not worry about any effects of the Ryan plan. Posturing as if she’s stopping to provide a fact check, O’Brien interrupts Comstock to provide a new distortion on an unrelated issue:

Okay, now let’s stop there. . . . That money is not taken out, that money is a reduction in the growth over ten years, that money doesn’t come from the benefits.

Given that O’Brien now mounts an argument against what she accepted earlier (that the 700 billion number is a cut), it’s obvious that she is just trying to tear down the Romney campaign with whatever’s closest at hand, factual or not. Her argument that Obamacare’s reduction in the growth of Medicare spending and reallocation of the funds doesn’t amount to any “cut” in “benefits” certainly has no basis in reality. Assuming health-care costs continue to grow anywhere near as quickly as they have been, the set growth rate will certainly mean real cuts: Medicare spending will grow more slowly than the costs of the care that’s supposed to be provided, meaning Medicare will provide less health care than it does now. That’s called a cut.