A reluctant defense of Bill Cassidy

No, he didn’t say that Black women’s deaths don’t count.

Here’s a pattern I complain about a lot: Some prominent Democrat says something that the conservative media paraphrases in a hostile way, making the statement sound much more ridiculous or offensive than it really was. That paraphrase then gets treated as if it were the actual quote, and a game of telephone proceeds from there, with each paraphrase more offensive (and further from reality) than the previous one.

Deplorables. That’s what happened, for example, when Hillary Clinton used the phrase “basket of deplorables” to describe the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” forces that had united under the Trump banner in 2016. Conservative media quickly turned that into a declaration that Trump supporters were deplorable in and of themselves, without reference to racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or Islamophobia.

The distortion started with the first news stories. The Washington Standard’s headline read: “Hillary Clinton: ‘Trump Supporters’ are a ‘Basket of Deplorables’

At a fundraiser on Friday, Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton lashed out at her opponent GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and his supporters. She called those supporting Trump a “basket of deplorables.”

The article included a Trump spokesman’s response:

What’s truly deplorable isn’t just that Hillary Clinton made an inexcusable mistake in front of wealthy donors and reporters happened to be around to catch it, it’s that Clinton revealed just how little she thinks of the hard-working men and women of America.

By now it’s a universal belief among Trumpists: Hillary called them deplorable, for no reason at all. What’s more, Hillary was just saying the quiet part out loud; Democrats in general look down on “the hard-working men and women of America”.

Inventing the internet. Something similar happened in 1999 when Al Gore replied to a question from Wolf Blitzer about what separated him from his primary rival Bill Bradley:

During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.

Before long, that quote morphed into Gore saying “I invented the internet.

Snopes summarized the context:

The vice president was not claiming that he “invented” the Internet in the sense of having thought up, designed, or implemented it, but rather asserting that he was one of the visionaries responsible for helping to bring it into being by fostering its development in an economic and legislative sense.

The claim that Gore was actually trying to take credit for the “invention” of the Internet was plainly just derisive political posturing that arose out of a close presidential campaign. If, for example, Dwight Eisenhower had said in the mid-1960s that he, while president, “took the initiative in creating the Interstate Highway System,” he would not have been the subject of dozens and dozens of editorials lampooning him for claiming he “invented” the concept of highways or implying that he personally went out and dug ditches across the country to help build the roadway. Everyone would have understood that Eisenhower meant he was a driving force behind the legislation that created the highway system, and this was the very same concept Al Gore was expressing about himself with interview remarks about the Internet.

But this also has become an article of faith on the Right: Gore made an absurd claim that undermines claims he has made on other issues, like climate change.

Democracy. Those are two of the most prominent examples, but lesser ones pop up on a regular basis. In the 2020 campaign, Fox played telephone with a Biden quote until eventually Lou Dobbs did this with it:

Joe Biden says the police are “the enemy.” Those are his words, “the enemy.”

But that was a paraphrase of a paraphrase, not “his words”. Conservatives have also spread doctored videos of Biden to either distort his views or make him look senile.

I hate stuff like that, not just because it treats public figures unfairly, but because it undermines democracy. The archetypal vision of democracy is of the public having a conversation that eventually arrives at some combination of compromise and consensus. Once such a conversation has established a public will, elected representatives can carry out that will.

But that whole vision comes apart if the public conversation centers on things that never happened, or devolves into flame wars started by insults that were never said.

That happens a lot these days, and for the most part I blame the Right. Some large part of their rhetoric is about “open borders”, when in fact we don’t have open borders and no Democrat is proposing that we should. Or about a mythical “stolen election”. Or public schools “grooming” children for pedophiles, or teaching White children to be ashamed of their race, when there is little reason to believe anyone is doing that.

Wouldn’t it be great if political campaigns could revolve around things that are real, rather than issues that have been invented to raise anger?

But if that’s what we want, we have to model it. In some arenas turnabout is fair play. But here, their abuse of democracy shouldn’t give us license to abuse it too. Personally, I’d like to save democracy, not win the ground where its corpse lies.

And that brings me to Bill Cassidy.

What did he say? Maybe you’ve seen the headlines: “Maternal death rate isn’t as bad if you don’t count Black women, GOP senator says” in Business Insider, “Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy: Our Maternal Death Rates Are Only Bad If You Count Black Women” in Vanity Fair, and many others. This weekend my social-media feed was full of comments from people who took those articles’ hostile paraphrases as quotes and reacted from there.

But did he actually say those things? You don’t have to take anybody’s word for it; the whole virtual interview is on YouTube. It’s just under half an hour, but the abortion/maternal-health portion is in the first nine-and-a-half minutes.

It’s important to set the stage: Senator Cassidy, a doctor himself, is being interviewed by Politico reporter Sarah Owermohle under the auspices of Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. This is not a campaign rally or other political event. Both Cassidy and Owermohle appear to be in their homes, but the virtual site of the conversation is Harvard.

Owermohle begins by asking about the leaked Supreme Court opinion reversing Roe, and Cassidy minimizes its impact, as if the 15-week ban at the center of the Dobbs case is the end of the story: Abortion will still be available up to that point, women will still be able to go to liberal states to get abortions, and abortion drugs will be available through the mail.

So fundamentally, the first month or two, not much would change, except for the location of where the abortion would take place.

Now, Cassidy surely knows that far stricter bans are being passed in states like Oklahoma and Tennessee, and that they will undoubtedly stand if Justice Alito’s opinion prevails. So he’s being disingenuous, but I have to admit that this is well within the bounds of normal political spin.

Owermohle then asks if Cassidy would support a federal ban on abortion, and Cassidy dodges. He says something that would argue against it:

I’m a federalist, and I think that states should be allowed to make decisions by the tenets of democracy.

But he doesn’t actually say he wouldn’t vote for a federal ban. Similarly, he argues that a national abortion ban would never get the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster, but says nothing about the pressure Republicans would be under to scrap the filibuster if they had a majority. So this response is slippery, but again, within the normal bounds of American politics.

Owermohle asks about next steps for the pro-life movement after Roe is overturned, probably looking for Cassidy to say something about birth control, but instead Cassidy shifts the discussion to maternal health.

I truly think we need to support the mom when the child is in utero, and to support the mom afterwards, to give her everything she needs so that she can feel comfortable bringing the baby to term [and either giving the child up for adoption or raising it herself], to support that continuum of life from within the womb to without the womb.

To her credit, Owermohle doesn’t take Cassidy’s expression of concern for pregnant women at face value, and asks a polite but challenging follow-up. She notes that Louisiana “ranks very high on maternal deaths” and asks what needs to be done to improve that.

This is the section that leads to the headlines.

[In] Louisiana, about a third of our population is African American. African Americans have a higher incidence of maternal mortality. So if you correct our population for race, we’re not as much of an outlier as would otherwise appear.

Remember, Cassidy is a doctor who thinks he’s talking to the Harvard School of Public Health, so he is assuming a sophisticated audience. In that context, he’s not arguing to ignore the deaths of Black women, he’s reframing the problem: The right question, he is claiming, isn’t why so many new mothers die in Louisiana, it’s why so many new African American mothers die nationwide. That interpretation is clear if you continue the quote:

I say that not to minimize the issue, but to focus the issue as to where it [sh]ould be. For whatever reason, people of color have a higher incidence of maternal mortality.

Does he leave “whatever reason” as an unfathomable mystery, say “Sucks to be them”, and move on? No. He talks about remedies.

Now, there’s different things we can do about that. I have something called the Connected MOMS Act.

The target of this act is a pregnant woman dependent on public transit who lives 20 miles or more from her doctor. “So you’d like a better way to monitor her than asking her to come to the doctor’s office every two weeks.” The plan calls for remote blood-pressure monitoring and a few other innovations that could spot complications from a distance.

We also have the maternal health improvements grant, which again is to promote studies of this issue as well as to look at potential remedies, if you will, if there’s racial bias that is discovered in how health care is delivered.

So we’ve got a couple things that we’re floating out there trying to take care of this issue, because it is an issue for us in Louisiana as well as for folks nationwide.

I want to point out how far out on a limb he has gone, from the point of view of the far-right Republican base: Cassidy is allowing the possibility that studies could show racial bias in health care. I think it’s obvious that such bias exists and that honest studies will find it, but the Republican base voter doesn’t want to hear that. If such a possibility were raised in a school textbook, it would be “critical race theory”.

So is Cassidy saying: “Don’t bother to count Black women”? No, he’s not. I haven’t read the two pieces of legislation he’s talking about, so it’s possible they don’t do as much as he says. Or maybe the bills include other objectionable provisions that make their passage impossible or counterproductive. I can’t judge that. But at the very least he is paying lip service to the idea that Black lives do matter.

And that’s the exact opposite of what he’s being accused of.

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  • Nat Kuhn  On May 23, 2022 at 9:48 am

    Nice piece, Doug. Although you give part of the context for Hillary’s quote, she also lumps HALF of his supporters as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic.” Given that, the result is quite expectable. Per time.com: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Clinton said. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.” https://time.com/4486502/hillary-clinton-basket-of-deplorables-transcript/

    • weeklysift  On May 23, 2022 at 12:14 pm

      But was she wrong? And her point is that they’re deplorable because of their specific bigotries, not because they’re Trump supporters.

      The underlying point, I think, was to put a question to the other half of Trump supporters, mainly traditional Republicans who were supporting their party’s nominee: “Do you know who you’re getting in bed with?”

  • Gillian  On May 23, 2022 at 10:37 am

    Thank you for posting this. As a white woman, mother and grandmother I applaud your efforts to combat misinformation when you encounter it.

  • joel2c  On May 23, 2022 at 12:04 pm

    Thanks for your integrity!

  • Winnie Riddell Sipprell  On May 23, 2022 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I saw the ‘comment’ you refer to on a FB page and did not respond to it. I usually take some time to research these types of things, but you did a better job explaining all the nuances.

  • philipfinn  On May 23, 2022 at 3:52 pm

    Regardless of Cassidy’s good intentions, there’s nothing preventing him and his colleagues from enacting legislation to help pregnant women now or any time within the last fifty years? And where’s the proof that all these good intentions won’t evaporate the moment Roe is overturned?
    Ultimately, it’s about Cassidy and people like him having the last word over 52% of the world’s population.
    And that’s about as good a definition of fascism as any.

    • EricPrinceofFlorin  On May 23, 2022 at 7:56 pm

      Okay, but that’s not the point here. If you’re going to use a right-winger’s fascist alignments as an excuse to spread untruth about them, then you’re just undermining what tenuous holds the US still has on democracy and paving the way for those fascists to further erode norms and hasten their ascent. We don’t have to go high when they go low in the sense that we just have to be nice, but we need to remain on the side who lives in the real world.

      • Anonymous  On May 23, 2022 at 8:43 pm

        “we need to remain on the side who lives in the real world.”
        yes, yes, yes

      • Dale Moses  On May 25, 2022 at 3:52 am

        Maybe. Or are we disarming by not allowing ourselves the full set of tools required to win modern elections?

        Now-a-days i tend to think the latter.

    • EricPrinceofFlorin  On May 28, 2022 at 4:34 pm

      “The full set of tools required to win modern elections” would certainly include violence, conspiracy theory, subjugation, heck even genocide, just to name a few. If your number 1 goal is winning elections with no regard for the collateral damage it takes you to get there, I know a political party that would welcome you to its ranks with open arms.

  • jeanpaulgirod  On May 25, 2022 at 12:13 am

    I question the motives of anyone who says “we need to study this issue”. Usually, the issue has already been studied and “we need to study” is just a delay tactic or deceitful. Which in this case, it’s definitely one of those two because there have been plenty of studies showing racial bias in healthcare. Cassidy has to know about these studies.

    “Native Americans and Blacks have much higher/lower X than Caucasians! It’s a mystery! We should study this!” We may need to make that our national motto at this point.

  • ADeweyan  On May 26, 2022 at 5:35 pm

    I find myself frequently making comments in line with this piece. The republicans do plenty of things that are reprehensible and must be argued against without us stretching statements and presenting things out of context. Our position is weakened whenever we work to make the other side out to be more extreme than they are. The best argumentative strategy is to give your opponent every benefit of a doubt and every positive interpretation you can and then still destroy their argument. That leaves them no where to run. Distort even one small aspect of their position and you’ve lost the opportunity to change anyone’s mind.


  • By Escalation | The Weekly Sift on May 23, 2022 at 11:31 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “A reluctant defense of Bill Cassidy“. […]

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