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Max Brantley’s Medicare Shuffle: A Vivisection

Updated: Apr 13

Max Brantley’s political blog at the Arkansas Times consistently intrigues me. Max has a unique voice, with an unusual blend of three qualities rarely found in tandem:

  1. The first (and most predominant) quality of his writing is, of course, barely contained rage.

  2. The second quality is a kind of self-righteous moralism, based on the premise that honest, principled disagreement with Max is impossible.

  3. The third is perhaps the most interesting: it is something like what George Orwell called “doublethink,” hypocrisy elevated to a governing ethical principle.

These three qualities reached a remarkable synthesis in his many recent blog posts about Medicare policy.

Readers of his blog are well aware of his overexcitement about what he regularly calls “the Republican plan to end Medicare.” He is intent on exposing the GOP’s alleged “plan to destroy Medicare” or “dismantle Medicare” or “kill Medicare.

In fairness, sometimes Max’s language is more dispassionate, such as when he accuses Republicans of the relatively mild offense of working to “bring an end to Medicare.” Occasionally he’s in a more relaxed, almost historical mood, only accusing those he disagrees with of working for the “gradual end of Medicare” or wanting “to eventually end Medicare.”

But Max’s insistence that the program remain untouched by Republican hands is absolute. He even tries to stigmatize public discussion of reforms; when Speaker of the House John Boehner suggested that wealthy people perhaps should pay more for their health care, Brantley pounced, once again eager to charge GOP legislators with aggravated government programicide. Means-testing for Medicare must be resisted, Max wrote, because “This would, in time, kill it.

More recently, however, his posts suggest exquisitely qualified and nuanced descriptions of Republican proposals—such as his accusation that Republicans are working for “nothing less than the end of Medicare as we’ve known it.” Or that Republicans are doing their best to “end Medicare as a single-payer health system.” Or when he accuses the GOP of walking down “a pathway to end Medicare as Americans have known and loved it. And that’s fact, not sloganeering.”

There’s a point to his qualifications – one might say, a method to his madness. Max wants to argue that Republicans are working to change an essential, Platonic aspect of Medicare: namely, the way the federal government funds it.

According to Max, you’re wrong if you think Medicare is popular merely because it delivers health care to sick people. His view, apparently, is that Medicare is popular not because of what it delivers, but because of the relatively technical aspects of its financing mechanism. As he notes, if Republican Medicare reform proposals were written into law, “You could still call it Medicare. Or you could call it a ham sandwich. But it wouldn’t be either as either term has ALWAYS been understood.

In a free society, people will have legitimate differences of opinion. Although most of us are aware of this, Max doesn’t seem to appreciate this basic fact of human life. Republicans can’t have honest disagreements with Max; rather, it is just that they are executing a “big-lie message war” filled with “disingenuous catch phrases.” He writes earnestly about Medicare, while they “sloganeer” and “swindle.” To disagree with Max on the best path to Medicare reform it to want “to rip the safety net asunder.”

Interestingly, it isn’t just Republicans he disagrees with. When Politifact, an independent third-party group, pointed out that the rhetoric about Medicare cooked up by Democratic pollsters and uncritically echoed by Max was inaccurate, his response to their findings was that they are, simply, “wrong.” Perhaps, for some people, that is convincing. Maybe when confronted with disagreement, the best way to resolve it is just to say, as Max does, that “Republicans gut Medicare. That’s the political fact.” (This is a remarkably revealing phrase, given that it implies that there is some difference between a “political fact” and an everyday, ordinary fact.)

Notably, Max takes a very different view of proposed Democratic changes to reforming the details of entitlement funding. I think in the above summary of Max’s rhetoric, I’ve demonstrated the rage and moralism I referenced. But a full demonstration of his hypocrisy, and in particular the very different standards Max applies to Republican as compared to Democratic entitlement reform proposals, will have to wait for my next post.

Christian Olson is an adjunct analyst at the Advance Arkansas Institute.

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