Opinion: Daily Journal

Political Class Rolls Doubles

The political debate in North Carolina has me seeing double.

A double standard, that is.

On Tuesday, longtime Duke University health care scholar Chris Conover testified before the General Assembly’s new Joint Study Committee on the Affordable Care Act and Implementation Issues. Conover’s analysis of Obamacare’s likely effects on health costs and economic growth in North Carolina was detailed, comprehensive, and sobering — as anyone familiar with his national work would have expected.

The response from many liberal lawmakers and activists was more suitable to the playground than the state capitol. They fumed, taunted, insulted, and figuratively stomped their feet in frustration. They observed conspiratorially that, in addition to his research work at Duke, Conover writes for the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute and thus couldn’t be trusted to offer valid analysis of the Affordable Care Act.

Reporters covering the testimony conducted themselves no better. For example, several labeled Conover a “conservative economist” in an attempt to weaken his credibility (his degrees are in political science and policy analysis). The News & Observer noted in the second paragraph of its story that Conover had “previously denounced President Barack Obama as a fascist,” without bothering to explain the context of that statement (made in a recent Forbes piece). Reporters paired Conover’s statements, buttressed by empirical data, with immediate assertions from unnamed “supporters” of Obamacare that Conover was spreading false information.

I’ve spent a quarter of a century in Raleigh watching and participating in public policy debate. Conover’s treatment is not standard practice. When left-leaning scholars from Duke, N.C. State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and other local universities testify before legislative committees, conservative lawmakers and activists don’t hop up and down in fury like third-graders. Reporters don’t label them “liberal professors” in an attempt to discredit their opinions. If the scholars have done work for prestigious left-of-center think tanks such as the Brookings Institution or the Urban Institute, that information is either left unsaid or used to establish the scholars’ reputation, not to attack them.

Conover doesn’t need me to defend him. He is, in fact, a nationally known and respected scholar on health care policy. His experience includes directing the State of Kentucky’s Center for Health Policy Development and Duke University’s Health Policy Scholars Program, working at the RAND Corporation and the U.S. Congress, and teaching at Duke, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Minnesota. His articles have appeared in both popular and scholarly publications, including the journals Health Affairs, Genetics in Medicine, Annual Review of Public Health, Journal of Insurance Regulation, Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics, Law and Contemporary Problems, AIDS Care, and Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved. He is also the author of the 2012 book The American Health Economy Illustrated, which Harvard University professor Martin Feldstein, president emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research, said “may be the best single-volume guide to the health care economy.”

If North Carolina lawmakers, activists, and reporters were unfamiliar with Conover and his work, that reflects poorly on them, not him. I assure you that most conservatives interested in health care reform have read the work of scholars who support the Affordable Care Act. As for Conover’s use of the term “fascism,” he was not comparing Obama to Mussolini or Hitler. He was using the term the way Jonah Goldberg did in Liberal Fascism, to describe an economic philosophy of central planning, collectivist rhetoric, and the capricious use of executive power.

Never heard of Jonah Goldberg? Ah, well, insularity is debilitating.

Anyway, read the whole piece. Personally, I don’t think using the term was wise. It distracted from the argument. But it also wasn’t akin to accusing President Obama of wanting to annex the Sudetenland or conquer Albania.

Now, can you think of any recent examples of a local scholar comparing an elected official to an extremist? Bingo. Back in October, UNC law professor Gene Nichol wrote in the N&O that supporting a voter ID requirement and other election-law changes made Gov. Pat McCrory “a 21st century successor to [Lester] Maddox, [George] Wallace, and [Orval] Faubus” — full-throated segregationists and racists. It was a ridiculous claim.

When the Civitas Institute subsequently sought public records about Nichol’s taxpayer-subsidized Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, liberals roundly championed his “academic freedom” and — would you believe it? — compared Civitas to the Nazi Party. They argued that by seeking public records Civitas was attempting to bully Nichol into silence (institute researchers had actually been seeking the records for years, and were always entitled to them, as all citizens are). When those public records then revealed a troubling incident of what looks like an evasion of the open-meetings law, liberals looked the other way. No newspapers reported on the story, even during “Sunshine Week.” Why? Newspapers had certainly given the initial controversy a lot of coverage.

North Carolina is a big, diverse state full of different people, institutions, and ideas. Our policy debate has plenty of room for Chris Conover, Gene Nichol, and other scholars, analysts, and commentators across the spectrum. When lawmakers and activists act like petulant children, and when reporters let their personal biases or blinders affect their work, the conversation is narrowed, not expanded.

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Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.