Bloomberg blogger (and self-described Republican) Josh Barro shows us how it is done.
In Florida, nearly 60% of voters oppose the expansion of Medicaid benefits, apparently vindicating the foot-dragging obstruction of that state's Republican governor - and convicted health care fraudster -- Rick Scott, who, until recently, was refusing to take free federal Medicaid money that might have provided good health for thousands of Scott's low-income constituents.
Except that Medicaid expansion isn't unpopular. It's hugely popular. But Republicans who read a poll conducted by the James Madison Institute would never have known that because, as Barro points out, Madison, like most conservative thinks tanks, doesn't actually do public policy research. Instead, these right wing institutes have become "taxed-advantaged vehicles for political activism."
And in Florida as elsewhere, James Madison didn't care that voters actually thought Medicaid was spiffy. Its only mission was to get voters to say they detested Medicaid so that the organization commissioning the poll (Governor Scott, perhaps?) could say Medicaid was unpopular.
What the James Madison Institute produced is called a "push poll." And polls like these, says Barro, are a great example "of the phenomenon that keeps making conservatives stupider in both politics and policy."
A push poll works like this, says Barro:
First, respondents are primed with misleading questions about the national debt and the size of Florida's existing Medicaid budget.
Then, they are given an inaccurate description of the terms of the expansion - told, for example, that Medicaid covers people earning up to 100% of the federal poverty line when the true limit is about half that -- and recipients must also have dependent children to qualify.
Then, respondents are told that after three years Florida would be on the hook for "more than 10%" of costs -- which you can call either wrong or a lie -- since the state's actual share would be exactly 10%.
And finally, says Barro, respondents are not asked a straight yes-or-no question on whether they like Medicaid but rather whether they favored its expansion "even if it results in tax hikes and spending cuts."
When people talk about the conservative echo chamber, says Barro, "they often focus on lowbrow outlets like Fox News, talk radio and Breitbart.com." But the real reason conservatives can't think straight "is that their supposedly smart institutions are inside the echo chamber, too."
That is a double problem for conservative politicians, says Barro, because outfits like James Madison not only fill their heads with bad information; they also lead them to take actions sure to produce negative political consequences.
David Frum, after all, was fired from the American Enterprise Institute for saying Republicans needed to accept that Obamacare was law and to find ways to make it work better. "It has taken three years since then for conservatives to start realizing he was right," Barros says.
If I was a Republican congressman or state legislator voting on the basis of opinion surveys like James Madison's, I'd be suing the institute for Medicaid malpractice. No wonder the GOP's favorability rating is lower than the legal drinking age, as former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs quipped the other day.
But the real reason Republicans don't complain more often is that what James Madison is doing by falsifying reality is not the exception inside the right wing's thought bubble but the rule. Indeed, conservatives have constructed for themselves an entire Alternative Reality Industrial Complex that is utterly indecipherable to anyone not habituated to conservative mythology, custom and folklore.
This reality-defying behavior descended into the theater of the absurd during the mugging administered by Republicans to defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel as senators like Rand Paul and James Inhofe went so far as to accuse their one-time Republican colleague of taking funds from a shadowy terrorist organization, called "Friends of Hamas," that did not in fact exist!
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank said the innuendo reached a whole new level of absurdity when freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) slithered to the microphone to suggest that Hagel "may" have been given speaking fees from "extreme or radical groups" as Cruz further insinuated that "at a minimum" it was "relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea."
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) joined Oklahoma's Inhofe in piling on when they both ripped Hagel's words out of context to accuse him of saying Israel was guilty of "sickening slaughter" when in fact Hagel had said during a speech on the Senate floor urging an end to the Lebanon war in 2006 that "the sickening slaughter on both sides must end."
Even before Hagel was nominated conservative media were already alleging he was anti-Semitic, says Milbank.
And the challenges to Hagel's patriotism continued when Inhofe rhetorically asked about the nominee who had earned two Purple Hearts on the battlefields of Vietnam: "Isn't it interesting that Iran supports Chuck Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defense? . . . That is a frightening thing."
No, said Milbank, the really frightening thing "is that Inhofe takes rogue-state propaganda at face value."
Egged on by neoconservatives and other pro-Israeli hard-liners concerned Hagel might upset their plans to "bomb, bomb, bomb; bomb, bomb Iran," Republicans staged an unprecedented 12-day filibuster of the nominee - then used the fact that no other group of senators in the 230-year history of the Republic had ever treated a candidate for secretary of defense this shabbily as grounds for suggesting it was Hagel who was unfit for his job.
"Over the last half-century, no secretary of defense has been confirmed and taken office with more than three senators voting against him," said Senator Dan Coats (R-Ind).
"He will take office with the weakest support of any defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective on his job," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex).
"You're going to have 40 votes against him, or 35 votes, and that sends a signal to our allies as well as our foes that he does not have broad support in the U.S. Congress, which limits his ability to carry out his job," Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla) told Fox News Sunday.
And Inhofe -- the senator most famous for his denial of global warming -- was deep in denial that there was anything history-making at all in the Republicans filibustering of Chuck Hegal. "Happens all the time," puffed Inhofe dismissively. "Nobody is impugning the integrity of former Senator Hagel."
No, Republicans are merely suggesting Hegal "is on the payroll of terrorists and in the pockets of America's enemies," said Milbank, noting the irony of Republicans failing to grasp that "the extraordinary variable here" is not Hagel's candidacy but their own unprecedented opposition to it, directed at a former Republican colleague who had the effrontery to become an Obama supporter.
The perversity on display during the Republican Party's opposition to the Hagel nomination, as Milbank remarked, was one "Joe McCarthy would have admired."
Never could it be said of a party's mental habits -- as it can be with the modern GOP -- that the wish is father to its thoughts.
Like its positions on Medicaid and the Hegal confirmation, Republican behavior in the sequester standoff is simply incomprehensible to those not accustomed to the GOP's peculiar standards of logic.
As New York magazine's Jonathan Chait says, "deciphering the GOP strategy is as mysterious as gaming out the plans of a tiny band of warring clans in some mountainous region of Afghanistan."
Deepening the "bafflement," he adds, "is that the Republicans' apparent approach bears no relation either to political reality or to the party's stated goals."
For, despite what Republicans insist, President Obama really has offered up hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Social Security and Medicare that Republicans say they want but have been unable to get even when they controlled the government. And if you read conservative pundits, says Chait, Obama is portrayed, wrongly, as demanding nothing but higher taxes - "full stop." So, conservatives are not so much rejecting Obama's offer as simply refusing to consider it at all.
"Let's make it clear," said Speaker Boehner today, "the president got his tax hike on January 1st. The discussion about revenue, in my view, is over. It's about taking on the spending problem here in Washington."
And so rather than even consider Obama's balanced offer, Chait says Republicans are prepared to undertake a public showdown "against a figure who is vastly more popular and trusted," who possesses a better platform to communicate his message, and whose message of spreading the pain equally among rich and poor alike, and preserving retirement programs for the elderly but not tax loopholes for the rich, "commands overwhelmingly higher public support."
The GOP's unhinged behavior can be explained but not rationalized, says Chait. As has been true ever since 1990 when conservatives followed Newt Gingrich in revolt against the deficit reduction deal negotiated between President Bush and congressional Democrats, every Republican priority has taken a back seat "to the cause of lower taxes on the highest-earning taxpayers," says Chait.
And so all this talk by the GOP of "tax reform" has been a ruse. "Republicans in Congress never actually supported raising revenues through 'tax reform,'" says Chait. "The temporary support for tax reform was just a hand-wavy way of deflecting Obama's popular campaign plan to expire the Bush tax cuts for the rich."
Conservative economists might agree higher taxes are preferable to bigger deficits when it comes to long term stability and economic growth "but Republicans in Congress just want rich people to pay less, period." And it's been that way going on a quarter century.
John Boehner, for all his faults, really has tried to negotiate with the President in good faith. Yet, all he has to show for it is "the pent-up rage and betrayal" of his most conservative members, says Chait.
Almost nothing Boehner has done as Speaker has endeared him to his "ultras," says Chait. Every compromise on taxes and the debt ceiling has created more "simmering rage and embitterment." And so now the Speaker finds himself, incredibly, having to promise his members "that he will not enter private negotiations with Obama."
Republicans all agree that taxes are bad, that defense spending cuts are bad, and that some entitlement cuts of one kind or another would be good, says Chait. Yet, when you look at the Republican Party's "decision" to go to war with the President over the sequester rather than negotiate with him in good faith, it's as if no real conscious thought went into the "decision" at all, says Chait -- if by "decision" you mean "a balancing of competing actual choices."
There are three ways you can subvert a democracy. You can do it militarily by staging a coup to topple a duly-elected democratic government through force. You can do it by design, as when you re-write the rules to disenfranchise the other side or to make it impossible for the majority to govern when it wins. Or, you can do it by stealth, by fabricating the reality upon which the citizens of a democracy form their opinions and base their decisions.
I suppose all of us should be grateful that Republicans, so far, are content with just two out of three.