If you want to run for office, political consultants will hammer away at one point: Tell stories. People respond to stories. We’ve been a story-telling species since our fur-clad ancestors gathered around campfires. Don’t cite statistics. No one can remember statistics. Make it human. Make it relatable. Lincoln told stories. FDR told stories. Reagan told stories.
Watching the Democrats’ fourth debate Tuesday night, you could see the candidates implementing this advice. They’d mention Joe Blow in their state who said X, or Jane Blow who called their office with Y problem. They commonly use techniques such as: “The voters I speak to aren’t preoccupied with the elite concerns of Washington or New York. The voters I speak to are concerned about . . .” and then the candidate fills in the policy he or she is touting.
That’s okay as far as it goes, but politics by anecdote should have some limits, because, as a wag once said, “The plural of anecdote is not data.” Relying on anecdotes alone is how you get the anti-vaccine movement and other dangerous delusions. “I knew a little boy who was totally normal and chatty until he got the MMR shot, and then he became autistic.” That’s tragic, but the data show that across large populations, there is no link between vaccines and autism. On the contrary, vaccines are a key public-health benefit.
Politicians owe it to us to ensure that when they use examples, they are using them to illustrate larger truths, not to mislead.
Elizabeth Warren fails this test. For someone who touts herself as a scholar, she resorts to anecdotes in most disingenuous fashion.
At the last debate, for example, asked to account for the cost of her “plan” to adopt Medicare for All, which would eliminate the private coverage enjoyed by an estimated 150 million Americans, Warren proffered stories:
So I have talked with the family, the mom and dad whose daughter’s been diagnosed with cancer. I have talked to the young woman whose mother has just been diagnosed with diabetes. I’ve talked to the young man who has MS.
And here’s the thing about all of them. They all had great health insurance right at the beginning. But then they found out when they really needed it, when the costs went up, that the insurance company pulled the rug out from underneath them and they were left with nothing.
Later, after asserting that only the wealthy and corporations would see their taxes go up under her plan, she cited the same anecdote: “And I will not embrace a plan that says people have great insurance right up until you get the diagnosis and the insurance company says, ‘Sorry, we’re not covering your expensive cancer treatments, we’re not covering your expensive treatments for MS.’”
Is there a widespread practice of insurance companies rescinding coverage when people get serious illnesses? There are only two studies of the problem dating back to the early 2000s. One, by the House Oversight and Investigations Committee, found that three companies had rescinded 20,000 policies over the course of five years — sometimes for fraud but in some cases for trivial reasons. All were policies purchased on the individual market, not through employers. Another study, by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, found that between 2004 and 2008, some 27,000 policies were rescinded out of 6.7 million individual plans surveyed. That translates to less than one half of 1 percent of policies.
Does that mean it wasn’t a problem? Not necessarily. Doubtless there were injustices — serious ones — when people found themselves facing a medical crisis and had their insurance cancelled. But there’s a reason that all of the data on this practice of rescission (which insurance companies claimed was fraud prevention) predate 2010. The Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, explicitly outlawed it. As Healthcare.gov explains: “Under the Affordable Care Act, rescission is illegal except in cases of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of material fact as prohibited by the terms of the plan or coverage.”
Elizabeth Warren surely knows this, and thus her tales of people’s insurance being withdrawn when they get sick are not illustrative examples of a serious problem. They are dishonest efforts to build a case for eliminating private health coverage. Warren, like Bernie Sanders, is an ideologue, enamored of government regulation of everything. Most Americans do not share her disdain for private health coverage. Eighty percent rate the quality of their care as excellent or good, and 69 percent rate their personal coverage the same way.
They deserve leaders who will not attempt to mislead them.
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Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.