One reason for the current non-debate over health care reform is that the Republicans and Democrats are playing different games. Democrats, and President Barack Obama especially, are playing Jeopardy. Republicans are playing Family Feud.
For those who haven't wasted as much time as I have watching TV game shows, let me briefly explain how these shows work.
Jeopardy is a fairly straightforward quiz show. It's one twist is that host Alex Trebek supplies "answers" for which contestants must provide the "question." Instead of asking something like "What is the capital of Australia?" Trebek instead says something like, "This city is Australia's capital." And instead of answering "Canberra," contestants are supposed to phrase their responses in the form of a question — "What is Canberra?" Apart from this semantic quirk, the game works just like any other trivia quiz show. Give the correct answers (in the form of the correct "questions") and you win. Jeopardy is a test of general knowledge and arcana. The more you know, the better you'll do. Facts matter in Jeopardy.
Facts do not matter in Family Feud. That game show — which pits teams of five family members against other family teams — isn't about getting the right answer, but about guessing the most popular response. Where Jeopardy's questions and answers come from an almanac or an encyclopedia, Family Feud's responses come from surveys and polls. "One hundred people surveyed," the host says, over and over, "the top five answers are on the board." The questions on Family Feud don't require knowledge or a grasp of information, but rather the ability to guess what answers were most popular with those "hundred people surveyed."
Usually, the Family Feud producers do a good job tailoring their questions to this subjective format. "Name something that might be found in a glove compartment," or "Name a popular animal at the zoo." Such questions don't have right and wrong answers, per se, just common or uncommon answers. But sometimes the producers trespass into more objective realms, offering questions that actually do have right and wrong answers. And on Family Feud, insisting on the right answer can get you into trouble, because those "hundred people surveyed" often seem to be an ill-informed bunch of morons.
When Alex Trebek asks you about the capital of Australia, you'd better say "Canberra" or you're going to lose. When Richard Dawson or his successors ask that question on Family Feud, you'd better be prepared to answer "Sydney" or "Melbourne" or "Vienna," because those hundred people surveyed may have never seen a map.
At the recent health care reform "summit," Republican leaders made it clear that they're not interested in playing Jeopardy. That would be a losing proposition against President Ken Jennings. Obama was eager to show that he really does have the right answers — cost containment, near-universal coverage, lower premiums, better quality care, deficit reduction. All of that is well covered in the plan he's pushing and any attempt to challenge him on the facts would be doomed.
So the GOP has decided to play a different game — to switch from Jeopardy to Family Feud. That way it's not about the facts, or about what works, or about the actual effect of actual policies on actual people. In the subjective guessing-game of Family Feud, none of that matters. Family Feud is all about perceptions — about what those hundred people surveyed think or guess or dimly remember having heard something about.
And the Republican Party — with tons of financial support from their allies in the health insurance lobby — have been working very hard for many years now to make sure that those hundred people surveyed have a distorted, confused and mostly ass-backwards perception of the facts.
This is how you play Family Feud politics:
Step One: Redefine the facts. If a policy works, claim it doesn't. If it will lower premiums, say it will raise them. If it would reduce the deficit, claim it will bankrupt the country. Obfuscate. Distract. Confuse. Lie. Lie some more. Throw random nonsense at the wall — death panels! — and see if any of it sticks. Don't be troubled by contradiction or worried about consistency. It's perfectly fine to simultaneously propose eliminating Medicare while posing as its defender. That's absurd and confusing, but confusion is the whole point here. Confusion is good. If those hundred people surveyed aren't completely confused, then you haven't succeeded in rigging the game.
Step Two: Poll, poll and poll. Hire Frank Luntz. Poll some more. This is all you can afford care about. Family Feud politics isn't about ideology, principle, values, good government, effectiveness, solutions, reality, facts, science or truth. It's about perception and the shaping of that perception by any means necessary. Obsessively polling and recalibrating the message and then re-polling is the only way to be sure that you're shaping perception in a winning way. Keep this up until the polls show that the confusion and disinformation sown in Step One have taken root among the hundred people surveyed.
Step Three: Cite the polling data. Call it that: polling data. The word "data" there makes it sound kind of like you give a damn about facts or reality or truth-telling. You don't — you mustn't if you intend to win this game — but you need to sound like you do. Argue that the polling data proves that the right answer is unpopular and therefore wrong. Argue that the facts are contrary to the will of the people. Argue that it would be undemocratic, tyrannical even, to insist on the right answer when the majority clearly disagrees. If you do this properly, you can congratulate yourself for being a champion of the very people you're screwing over and even get some of them to thank you for robbing them blind.
It isn't pretty. Or moral. But what did you expect from a game in which there's no such thing as the right answer?