Watch we do, not what we say, John Mitchell famously said as the Nixon administration set out to further the cause of African American civil rights in the South and elsewhere with its conservative rhetoric as a cover.
"Don't watch what do, but believe what we say" is the Obama administration's deceptive rhetorical strategy. Case in point: the health care coverage of illegal immigrants.
During the contentious health care debate last fall, the subject of coverage of illegal immigrants came up. The question then was a very limited one: Whether they would be able to purchase, with their own money, entry in the mandated insurance pools. The answer was no.
In his address to Congress on health care, the president said, "[t]here are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms – the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally." The White house subsequently followed through asserting that "[u]ndocumented immigrants would not be able to buy private insurance on the [health insurance] exchange."
When asked in a CBS interview whether illegal immigrants would be covered under the pending health care legislation, "President Obama responded simply, 'no.'" As one report noted, "Excluding illegal immigrants was a price Barack Obama paid for bringing conservative Democrats on board."
This proved to be a classic case of misdirection. Yes, under the legislation illegal immigrants would be unable buy private insurance in the government sponsored health-care exchanges. However, one they became legalized through Obama's "comprehensive immigration reform" legislation, there would be no such barrier.
And this is clearly what Obama had in mind. In that same CBS interview, Obama tipped his hand about his future intentions, "First of all, I'd like to create a situation where we're dealing with illegal immigration, so that we don't have illegal immigrants…And we've got legal residents or citizens who are eligible for the plan. And I want a comprehensive immigration plan that creates a pathway to achieve that."
If that's a little opaque, he was much clearer in a recent Univision interview. In that interview he was asked:
Don Francisco: Let's change subjects now; I wanted to talk to you about health reform, which undoubtedly has been a triumph for your administration. Many are very grateful , but the question is, Why have you excluded the 12 million undocumented immigrants from it?
President Barack Obama: Well, the fact of the matter is that we have gotten 30 million people health insurance. And that includes probably nine million Latinos because... the group that is most likely to not have insurance, even though they are working, are Latinos. We couldn't cover all undocumented workers, there wasn't the budget for it and frankly the real solution there is make sure that they are legal. Once they are [legal]; if we can provide a pathway of citizenship for them, then they will be eligible for the same benefits as everybody else.[emphasis added]
So, in the CBS interview, a more honest answer to the question "will illegal immigrants be covered" would have been: "no, not right away but as soon as I am able to get 'comprehensive immigration reform' passed and with the legalization of 12 million illegal immigrants, they will all be eligible for my new health care plan."
The Congressional Budget Office could not consider the costs of this sly scenario since it wasn't a specific part of the legislation they had in hand to evaluate. But the costs would be substantial.
It may be that Americans would be willing to incur these costs, but that is unclear since they have never been asked or clearly informed that this is an unavoidable outcome of any successful effort to legalize the status of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
And here we arrived at the crux of Obama's leadership problem as president. He is smart and clever, but he is also devious and deceptive. Every president has to convince the public of the merits of his plans. However, there is a large difference between emphasizing what you see as the benefits of your proposals, and deliberately withholding what you clearly intend to do from the public, knowing they would be aghast if they knew.
Some years ago, the moral philosopher Sissela Bok wrote a book entitled Lying, in which she point out the stark difference between those who lie and those who are lied to.
The deceiver has a many rationalizations for why their deception is necessary, and smart deceivers like Obama probably have even more. But the plight of those deceived is always the same regardless of the eloquence of the rationalizations. They feel used, tricked, and angry – legitimately so.
Anyone working on real immigration reform would be well advised to take a pledge of transparency and forthrightness. No thousand-page bills with esoteric legislative language that no one will read and few can understand and whose primary purpose in the past has been to mask and obscure rather than clarify. No vague rhetorical phrases whose real meaning is to be found on p. 678, section II, paragraph four, sub-numeral three. No "fact sheets" that tout only the proposal's virtues.
Come to think of it, this wouldn't be a bad idea for every piece of major legislation coming of the new and hopefully improved post-November Congress.