In an impressive display of chutzpah, the Tampa Bay Times' fact-checking organization PolitiFact has designated President Obama's promise that "If you like your health care plan, you can keep it" as their "Lie of the Year" for 2013 while simultaneously distancing itself from its own years-long record of failing to identify it as a lie.
PolitiFact editor Angie Holan said Thursday that Obama's promise was a "catchy political pitch and a chance to calm nerves about his dramatic and complicated plan to bring historic change to America's health insurance system." But the promise was "impossible to keep," she said, noting that to date an estimated 4 million people have lost their coverage.
On the one hand, it is good that PolitiFact is holding the president account for a lie involving such a major and far-reaching law. But Holan's column gave her readers the impression that PolitiFact has been on the case regarding this for quite a while, stating that "fact-checkers flagged (Obama's) statements as exaggerated at best."
Later in the same column, Holan said: "In 2009 and again in 2012, PolitiFact rated Obama’s statement 'half true,' which means the statement is partially correct and partially wrong. We noted that while the law took pains to leave some parts of the insurance market alone, people were not guaranteed to keep insurance through thick and thin. It was likely that some private insurers would continue to force people to switch plans, and that trend might even accelerate."
That is technically true, but rating something as "half true" when it is flat-out false is still missing the mark by a significant margin. And it ignores that in three other columns relating to the claim 2012, PolitiFact gave ratings that failed to indicate the claim was false and served to shoot down Republican critics.
And in an October 2008 column -- just before the election -- PolitiFact actually rated Obama's promise as "true." It said at the time: "Obama is accurately describing his health care plan here. He advocates a program that seeks to build on the current system, rather than dismantling it and starting over."
In other words, it rated him on the basis of whether he was accurately stating his own campaign promise, a hurdle no politician could fail to clear.
In an August 2009 column, PolitiFact did pull back, noting: "It's not realistic for Obama to make blanket statements that 'you' will be able to 'keep your health care plan.'"
Since Obama was making just that blanket claim, it ought to have been rated "false," but PolitiFact decided against that. "[O]ne of the points of reform is to change the way health care works right now. So we rate Obama's statement Half True," it ruled. Rather than hold Obama to account, it moved the goalposts instead.
In June 2012, PolitiFact rated a claim by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that "up to 20 million Americans" could ultimately lose their insurance under Obamacare as "false." It did this even though it acknowledged that the Congressional Budget Office analysis that Romney was citing included the 20 million figure as a possible scenario.
PolitiFact repeated the "false" rating in an October 2012 column -- just a month before the election -- after Romney again used the figure in a presidential debate. Yet in March of the same year, it rated the exact same claim by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as "half true."
Even taking into account that Romney and Priebus were using the CBO's worst-case scenario, on the larger question of whether Obama's promise was false and millions would lose their coverage, both were indisputably correct. Yet PolitiFact's ratings did not reflect that.
As late as June 28, 2012, PolitiFact was still rating Obama's claim as "half true." It wasn't until late this year that it got around to telling its readers that the promise wasn't true, first rating a statement by White House adviser Valerie Jarrett as "false" and then rating an attempt by Obama to re-write history on the matter as "pants on fire."
In a November Washington Examiner column, I asked Holan whether PolitiFact still stood by its 2008-12 columns. She declined to answer that question, but in a column for Poynter, she did defend its rulings: "We get regular criticism whenever we rate a statement Half True, but in a complicated world, it's often the right call."
I wonder how many people who lost their insurance agree that it was "the right call."