Paul Begala on Washington’s Euphemistic Deceptions

"We’re talking about cutting services to special-needs kids, and paying doctors and hospitals less." Brendan Smialowski / AFP-Getty Images

“Political speech and writing,” George Orwell wrote in a biting and brilliant critique, “are largely the defense of the indefensible.” The most political of writers bemoaned the fact that “political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell was reacting to the desperate euphemisms employed by members of the British intelligentsia in his day who had taken to defending the indefensible savagery of Stalinism, but there are plenty of examples in today’s debate over America’s debt.

I tried to persuade Bill Clinton to mock one of today’s more egregious euphemisms—the Republicans’ use of words like “fix” to describe what they want to do to Medicare—as he prepared his speech to the Democratic National Convention in September. Here’s the line I pitched him: “Every time I hear Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan say they want to ‘fix’ Medicare, it reminds me of when that veterinarian said he wanted to ‘fix’ my old dog Buddy. But it was not a fix. It was a cut, and there’s a difference.”

Our former president, you may be comforted to know, thought it best not to include in one of the most important speeches of the election a dog-castration joke. But the point I was trying to make remains important: beware of euphemisms—they mask mischief.

Republicans don’t want to “fix” Medicare or “reform” Medicare. And Lord knows they don’t want to “modernize” it or—as the deeply disingenuous Paul Ryan says—“protect and strengthen Medicare.” No, they want to end it. Newt Gingrich showed admirable clarity of language in 1996 when he said of the agency that financed Medicare, “We believe it’s going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it.” When something withers on the vine, it dies.

Far too often the press simply accepts partisans’ preferred euphemisms. For decades countries that traded freely with America were given a status called “Most Favored Nation.” When I worked in the Clinton White House we sought such status for the People’s Republic of China. But can you really call the land of Mao, the place of forced abortions and the mass murder in Tiananmen Square, a “Most Favored Nation”? We needed a euphemism. Someone came up with “Permanent Normal Trade Relations.” Ahh, that’s nicer, isn’t it? Amazingly, everyone went along with it. MFN disappeared, PNTR became the euphemistic acronym that elite policymakers and journalists used.

But sometimes reporters use plain, true words that strip away the comforting lies. In describing the Ryan plan for Medicare The Wall Street Journal wrote, “The plan would essentially end Medicare, which now pays most of the health-care bills for 48 million elderly and disabled Americans, as a program that directly pays those bills.” Under the GOP plan, when fully phased in, Medicare would no longer pay health-care costs for seniors. Instead, the elderly would be given a voucher (with the euphemistic label of “premium support”) and sent into the private health-insurance market. Some think this system would be better; some think it would be worse. But whichever it is, it would not be Medicare as we have known it for nearly a half century. Traditional Medicare would be essentially ended—not “saved” or “rescued” or “strengthened.” Essentially ended. Bully for the Journal for saying so.

By the way, even saying we will cut or essentially end—or do anything else—to Medicare or Medicaid is itself a bit of a euphemism. What we are talking about is cutting health care for the elderly. Cutting medical services for the poor. Reducing aid to special-needs kids. Paying doctors and hospitals less.

We see the same euphemistic dishonesty in the talk of taxes. Democrats don’t want to “reform” taxes—at least not in the near term. They want to raise them for the rich. Politicians may dress up this reality with talk of “enhanced revenue” or “broadening the base” or even “lowering the rate.” Whatever. We are going to raise taxes. Someone is going to pay more, and that someone is likely to be making more than $250,000 a year.

I expect a deal on the debt. Perhaps not by the Dec. 31 deadline, but almost certainly in early 2013. That deal will likely force rich people to pay more in taxes. It will probably cut spending on health care for seniors, the poor, and people with special needs. It’s impossible to know the specifics in advance. But this I can guarantee: the deal will be cloaked in the anodyne-sounding but reality-denying euphemisms of current political discourse.

Just as Orwell predicted.