Betsy McCaughey’s addition to Donald Trump’s council of economic advisors seems fitting: Both are conspiracy theory-floating sensationalists who have what you might describe as a hostile relationship with the truth.
Trump announced that McCaughey, along with seven other women, was joining his economic team Thursday after critics noted the council was made up entirely of men, only one Ph.D.-holding economist and four Steves among them, upon its initial rollout.
The campaign’s biography of McCaughey describes her as “a public policy expert,” citing her Ph.D. from Columbia University, her time as the lieutenant governor of New York state, her two anti-Obamacare books and her “nationwide educational campaign to stop hospital-acquired infections.”
But it leaves out perhaps the greatest asset she brings to Team Trump: an ability to serve up distortions and flat-out falsehoods about Democratic legislation that mainstream Republicans and even credible media outlets devoured and regurgitated as conventional wisdom.
McCaughey’s biggest success was her role in the defeat of the health care reform initiative led by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, an achievement that makes her entry into this current electoral cycle all the more fitting. In what started as a Wall Street Journal op-ed, McCaughey pushed the inaccurate assertion that the Clinton legislation would ban health care consumers from paying doctors for services outside their government plans.
Her “no exit” claim landed her a cover story at The New Republic that won a National Magazine Award, even though the bill itself clearly stated that “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as prohibiting the following: (1) An individual from purchasing any health care services” (an editor of the magazine would later recant that story). McCaughey’s allegation nonetheless provided Republicans an easy talking point as the legislation stalled in Congress, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called her writings the “the first decisive breakpoint.”
Unlike that 1990s crusade, McCaughey’s attacks on President Barack Obama’s health care initiative weren’t enough to block its passage. But she was still able to land some lasting, albeit deceptive, blows on the law. Most famously, she was a major propagator of the Obamacare “death panels” myth that held the law created a panel of bureaucrats who would deem which Americans were worthy of health care.
The rumor was repeated by everyone from Sarah Palin to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). To this day, Republicans continue to block funding to the now-politically toxic Independent Payment Advisory Board, the second-generation version of the GOP’s death panel boogeyman.
McCaughey also charged that the law required doctors to ask patients about their sex lives. Politifact gave that claim a “pants on fire” rating, as it did for her “death panels” statements. She once walked out of an interview with “The Daily Show” when her interlocutor questioned her arguments for repealing Obamacare.
Her targets extend beyond the law itself. McCaughey has suggested that the Congressional Budget Office was lowballing its Obamacare cost estimates. She called for the quarantine of health care professionals who treated Ebola and of those who traveled to Ebola-affected regions, while accusing the CDC of putting politics over science. She blamed immigrants for a measles outbreak in California.
On the subject of immigration, McCaughey was no fan of the Senate’s failed Gang of Eight bill. She wrote that community organizations that both the immigration bill and the Affordable Care Act sought to partner with would “indoctrinate millions of people,” and “could make it impossible for Republicans to win a national election.”
And lawsuits that challenged restrictive voting laws? She predicted they would be used to deny Mitt Romney the presidency had he managed to eke out a win in 2012.
“The debt-ceiling battles of 1995 and 2011 are what the framers intended in devising checks and balances,” she wrote.
Weighing in on the debate over litigating campus sexual assault, McCaughey wrote:
Maturing heterosexual males are wired to pursue women for sex. And maturing females learn — often through trial and error — how to respond. When young women want sex, they learn to tilt their head or smile. And when they don’t want sex, they need to learn to firmly push away, convincingly say ‘no’ or just get up and leave.
In the absence of force (or intoxication), there is nothing stopping them except their confusion.”
Back in 2009, The Atlantic correspondent James Fallows wrote a corrective to his assessment of McCaughey on a public radio show a few weeks prior. On the show, he’d predicted that her latest round of “death panels” fear-mongering would not have nearly the same impact that her anti-health care reform zealotry had in the ’90s because the media environment had evolved in such a way that he thought it’d be better equipped to call out her lies.
“But the flow of argument makes it appear that ‘death panel’ has won the battle of political ideas, as ‘no exit’ did 15 years ago (and as the ‘birthers’ have not done),” Fallows wrote, noting that Grassley had picked up on McCaughey’s idea.
“The political fundamentals, as I understand them, still favor the passage of some health-care bill. To that extent, Ms. McCaughey may indeed have been blunted,” Fallows wrote. “But I said two weeks ago that I thought today’s communications systems had caught up with people who invented facts. I was wrong.”