Betsy 'Death Panels' McCaughey Made to Look Ridiculous by Progressive Stalwart in Key Health Care Debate

I know I'm not supposed to say this, but I actually feel sort of sorry for Betsy McCaughey. When McCaughey burst on the scene in the 1990s to take her shot at unraveling Hillary Clinton's health-care plan, she was heralded as the conservative's answer to the brainy first lady.

McCaughey was awarded instant intellectual credibility. Like Clinton, she has an Ivy League background: college at Vassar, Ph.D. from Columbia, and they may have shared the same hair colorist. But McCaughey undoubtedly got points for being something that Hillary Rodham Clinton was not: McCaughey was a babe. Now, 16 years later, as she once again does her bit to derail universal health care for the American people, the babe act is wearing thin.

McCaughey says she's 60, fachrissake -- almost as old as me. Yet there she was on Monday night, talking part in a health-care debate sponsored by the Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century, parading around on the stage of New York University's Zankel Auditorium on black stiletto heels so high, it hurt just to look at her. Doesn't being 60 mean never having to say Manolo? Click, click, click, click went the stilettos as the improbably blonde sexagenarian health-care commentator crossed the stage to thrust her ... invective in the face of poor Representative Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., a genuine liberal.

The stage was pretty dark, so I didn't realize McCaughey was pushing sixty-one (October 20) until the media scrum after the debate was over. But it explains a lot. Trying to make it in those very early days of feminism, a few girls figured out that they could get some traction on their way out of the working class, as McCaughey did, or just into the larger world if they knew more than anyone else in the whole class about something. If they did all the extra-credit reading. If they could cite their authorities right down to the page number by heart. Didn't really matter what it was -- all 14 of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, or the exact number of all the executive orders addressing sex discrimination in employment by the federal government, or that it was the commerce clause of the Constitution that supported the Civil Rights Act. There was a certain solidity in the real citations, proof against all the guys' preening and guessing and getting away with it. If you knew the 14th point, attention would be paid. If only for a moment.

It was the lesson that McCaughey took to heart. To her debate with Weiner, she brought her prop, a four-inch-thick notebook containing the supposed draft of the "health-care bill" -- whatever that means at this point in the legislative process. This was apparently the same notebook she trotted out for her quizzing by Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. McCaughey was never more than a foot away from her big book, tapping it and caressing it and shaking its pages at Weiner, as if the fumes from its deadly provisions would fell her adversaries by sheer proximity.

Trouble is, who knows what's really in her magic binder? At one point she referred to a provision supposedly at "page 120 and 121" while pointing at a paper at least midway through the massive tome. If that paper was page 121 of anything, then I'm the Queen of Romania. And, although there are doubtless words on page 121 of some health bill making its way through Congress, I'm skeptical that they say anything resembling what Betsy McCaughey says they say. Sadly, the actual proposal probably reads a lot more like the wonkish Weiner's version, who spoke of "avoiding disincentivizing doctors" from saving money and the like. (You can tell authentic wonk talk from the sudden conversion of nouns into verbs.)

McCaughey's most significant contribution to today's wrangling over health-care reform is the "death-panels" trope: the notion that a provision that allows coverage for counseling on end-of-life options amounts to a secret plan to off seniors. (Yes, it was McCaughey who served as Sarah Palin's Facebook source.) At one point McCaughey contended that a provision that would penalize doctors who prescribed treatment that contradicted their patients' end-of-life arrangements actually meant that doctors would pull the plug even while the patients, having second thoughts, begged them not to. No changing your mind in McCaughey's Brave New World, no sirree. McCaughey illustrated her loony misinterpretation of the consultation provisions with a "story" of a patient who, when the moment came to abide by her own prior arrangements, instead "chose life."

"Choose life," the anti-abortion movement's favorite slogan -- get it, get it? That's where the sisterly solidarity got a little thin for me. All that blonde hair started looking less like Gwyneth's and more like the coif of Medusa: One good look at Betsy McCaughey and health care dies for another generation.

The gender subtext of this so-called debate was so thick it was hard to hear the important arguments: Was there any way at all to cut health-care costs without reducing care? Was a bill other than Weiner's preferred single-payer bill worth supporting anyway? Why were cost rising faster in the United States than any other country? For, through it all, there was McCaughey, flicking her blonde locks (I counted 10 such motions, if you include both flicking and stroking, in the hour of formal debate), clicking on her heels and clucking over the danger to the republic, fairly heaving in indignation at the evils the president and his acolytes in Congress had in mind.

As usual, all that pulchritude does make for difficult forensics. When Weiner compared debating McCaughey to arguing with a pyromaniac in a straw man factory, a loud male voice from the back called out, "Argue like a man!" Every time Weiner, not unreasonably, referred to McCaughey's low veracity ranking with the nonpartisan Politifact fact-checker (she has a "Pants on Fire" rating for the death panels business), McCaughey's male supporters in the audience began chanting "rude MAN, rude MAN!"

Initially, this debate held some prospect of being edifying, especially since Weiner supports the most liberal version of health care, single payer, and has expressed a coherent, genuinely progressive position. (Regarding the current bill, he's an ardent proponent of the public option.) But the evening quickly degenerated into an all-too-common formula: hair-tossing, right-wing provocateur; disaffected, shouting-out audience member; verb-form-abusing liberal policy wonk. At least the memory of the old days at the girls' school kept me interested while they acted out their parts. I didn't learn much about health care, but I've got almost all of the 14 Points.

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