Last week, the estimable PolitiFact.com gave its harshest verdict – “Pants on Fire” – to a DCCC ad attacking the Republican plans to privatize Medicare. There are a bunch of exaggerations and questionable assertions in the ad (as in many political ads) but the nub of the issue was the assertion that “Republicans voted to end Medicare.” PolitiFact objected on these grounds:

Yes, the Republican plan would be a huge change to the current program, and seniors would have to pay more for their health plans if it becomes law. Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have said they are strongly opposed to the plan.

But to say the Republicans voted to end Medicare, as the ad does, is a major exaggeration. All seniors would continue to be offered coverage under the proposal, and the program’s budget would increase every year.

Medicare defenders have objected on the grounds that the GOP changes to the program would render it so radically different in form from the old, and the benefits would fall so far short in various ways, that it effectively means the end of Medicare “as we know it.” PolitiFact alludes to that, saying calling it a “critical qualifier” the ad should have included.

Here’s my problem. This is a semantic thicket, and adjudicating this is a hopelessly slippery distraction. PolitiFact has fallen into a trap that exposes some of the limits of political fact-checking as currently practiced.

There is no fact-based “objective” answer to the question at hand. A binary choice will either favor the biases of Republicans, who stress continuity (disingenuously, in my view, given Medicare as currently constituted is viewed by so many people as virtually sacrosanct), or of Democrats, who stress the discontinuity (overplaying that hand in the TV spot). The Republican plan would replace the current version of Medicare with a radically different program. Is this still “Medicare”? Well, it’s still called Medicare, and still pays for (some) health insurance for the elderly as Medicare does. (That’s the PolitiFact argument.) On the other hand, the reforms would change the program fundamentally. Its nature as guaranteed government-provided social insurance would be lost.

But here’s a test that shows the essential semantic nature of this dispute: If the Republicans called their “new Medicare” program “ElderCare” instead and left everything else the same, PolitiFact would have to concede that Republicans had indeed voted to “end Medicare.”

We crave impartial judges, and fact-check sites such as PolitFact are extremely valuable during a time when the impartiality of basically all media institutions is being questioned. But political arguments have deep roots and resonances – especially those surrounding Medicare. Fact-checkers claiming impartiality owe it to us not just to apply an arbitrary, back-of-the-envelope standard of what makes Medicare “Medicare.” They must take Medicare’s history seriously, and explain the sophisticated  rhetorical stratagems being employed that attempt to elide – or to exploit – that history. Making sense of this requires more explanation of what’s at stake, a narrative, even – not a binary choice and a catchy label. It’s not that either-or choices and labels are never useful in explaining complex topics. But entitlement politics resembles three-dimensional chess.

By announcing its “objective” answer to a question with no objective answer, PolitiFact didn’t clarify this most important of issues, it muddied it. As Josh Marshall points out here, its “pants on fire” ruling has fueled juvenile coverage on the “debate about the debate.” The actual impacts of Medicare retrenchment? Not so much.

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