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The Palin of Wonk World

Most people outside New York have probably never heard of Betsy McCaughey, and even New Yorkers would mainly remember her bizarre one-term stint as Lieutenant Governor of the Empire State in the 1990s, characterized by constant friction with her supposed boss and running-mate, Gov. George Pataki.

But in the world of policy wonks, McCaughey is notorious for a studious-sounding 1994 piece published by The New Republic that is frequently blamed for undermining support for the Clinton health plan at a crucial moment, via fundamental mistatements of its impact on people who already had health insurance. Indeed, her role in derailing universal health coverage led directly to her short career in Republican politics.

Current TNR editor Franklin Foer apologized for the magazine's publication of McCaughey's piece in his first signed editorial. Now that she is back on the same scene spreading disinformation about the current health reform effort, that apology has undoubtedly been made manifest in Michelle Cottle's definitive smackdown of McCaughey in an article with the same title--"No Exit"--as the 1994 essay.

After listing a variety of highly negative characterizations of McCaughey's veracity as a policy thinker by other wonks, including many conservatives, Cottle makes this provocative judgment:

What kind of person drives normally staid wonks, including her own ideological teammates, to such stinging public reproof? Part of it is obviously the nature of her commentary. But beyond that, there is something about McCaughey herself that drives her critics wild--and has throughout much of her career. Friends posit it's her disconcerting blend of brains, beauty, and confidence. Detractors chalk it up to her rank dishonesty, narcissism, and lack of shame. Whatever the cause, the passion McCaughey inflames is familiar. Looking over the sweep of McCaughey's life, from her swift political rise (and fall) to her humble roots, from her straight-talking persona, fierce will, and blinding confidence to her gift for self-dramatization, head-turning looks, and embrace of the gender card, one sees precursors of a more recent conservative phenom. Replace the East Coast researcher's political-outsider, stats-wielding, pointy-head shtick with a political-outsider, gun-toting, populist one, and a striking parallel emerges: Betsy McCaughey is, in essence, the blue-state Sarah Palin.

The comparison to Palin is inevitable, since it was McCaughey's "research" on current Democratic health reform efforts that inspired Palin's infamous claim that they would lead to government "death panels" withholding health care from seniors and people with disabilities. The big difference between McCaughey's destructive role on health reform in 1994 and now is, of course, the rise of hyper-ideological media eager to take her think tank credentials at face value and give her a big and continuous platform for her views.

But as Cottle argues, there's a more direct parallel between McCaughey and Palin: an uncanny knack for turning any and all criticism into an indictment of the alleged biases of critics, a tactic that perpetually evades basic questions of fact and fiction:

[McCaughey] has proved devastatingly adept at manipulating charts and stats to suit her ideological (and personal) ambitions. It is this proud piety concerning her own straight-shooting integrity combined with her willingness to peddle outrageous fictions--and her complete inability to recognize, much less be shamed by, this behavior--that makes McCaughey so infuriating. In this way, perhaps most of all, she resembles the tell-it-like-it-is good ol' girl Palin, whose scorching self-regard and ostentatious disdain for politics-as-usual infuse even her most self-serving fabulisms. Palin, of course, hawks homespun wisdom, faith, and common sense, in contrast to McCaughey's figures and footnotes. But both women have an uncanny ability to shovel their toxic nonsense with nary a blink, tremor, or break in those dazzling smiles. People of goodwill and honest counsel don't stand a chance.

You have to guess that Michelle Cottle will soon experience McCaughey's tactics first-hand.