Dick's Got a New Heart: Why Cheney's Transplant Makes a Good Case For ObamaCareS

Last weekend, America's subterranean war monster, Lord Kinbote Dick Cheney, received a new heart from a Virginia hospital. Apparently, he even got it legally, although we'll never know if the hospital in question first deferred him five times. The right got a new faintly Obamacare-related talking point, and the left—even as it worried about the invalidation of the most important health care reform in generations—well, it didn't really get it at all.

After learning Cheney absorbed a viable heart, seemingly everyone in America thought of the same follow-up joke for Bush. Meanwhile, on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart used Cheney gags to counterpoint the horror of Trayvon Martin's murder and its coverage. And probably everyone's Twitter and Facebook feeds turned into the amateur yuk-yuk hour.

While internet and TV wiseasses had fun, conservative bloggers saw an opportunity: disingenuousness should never get in the way of a talking point. The American Thinker, a website ostensibly named by Orwell, brought back DEATH PANELS to suggest that Obamacare would have killed old Dick, who was 71 at the time of his transplant, six years past the conventional (but not absolute) age limit. Never mind that existing ethical transplant procedures already require looking at the age and future health of potential donors.

The New York Post graciously added the headline "Beware ObamaCare: It might've killed Cheney" to a word salad that takes a few seconds to realize is made of reader letters and not its typical op-eds. Breitbart.com criticized The Daily Beast's questioning the means by which Cheney got his transplant, accusing it of "voicing the typically Obama-style view of looking at health-care as an avenue toward survival of the fittest." This absurdly ignores the Randroid rhetoric on display on other parts of the site, as well as the fact that the nearly 50 million Americans currently without health insurance live a far more Darwinian existence than they would under the PPACA (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act).

Finally, cheerleader-friendly RedState ran a curiously capitalized article announcing, "A Poorer Man Than Dick Cheney Might've Died if ObamaCare was in Full Effect," which is just a multi-car pileup of misunderstood causation. Speaking of which, a poorer man than Dick Cheney might die if Deathrace 2012 is in effect, because he can't be surrounded by an armored limousine in a car accident. Poorer people than Dick Cheney die pretty much all the time, regardless of circumstances, because they don't have the financial wherewithal to buy themselves out of hassles. But a poorer man than Dick Cheney stands a whoppingly good chance of dying without the PPACA in effect, because a poorer man doesn't have the means to buy his way around a for-profit insurance system where the insurer has virtually no concrete obligations to the insured and a strong financial incentive to deny claims and services and use the cost of court proceedings as leverage to enforce capricious rescission of contract.

And this is where most of the left again missed an opportunity to sell Obamacare and explain why casting 50 million people to the vicissitudes of an essentially unaccountable insurance establishment is a fundamentally shitty idea. Funnily enough, some of the most helpful commentary came from Kelly Phillips Erb at Forbes, who made a great though probably unintentional case for the public option:

Fortunately for Cheney, the cost of his health care was covered by taxpayers. In addition to health insurance provided through the government for Cheney's years of service, Cheney, like millions of other Americans was eligible for Medicare benefits when he turned 65....
It's ironic, of course, that Cheney received his new heart just as the debate about Obamacare was being argued in front of the Supreme Court.

Obamacare doesn't work the same way: the individual mandate requires people to buy private insurance, whose administrative costs increase dwarf those of Medicare by an order of magnitude. But it's the other elements of the PPACA that are important here.

Despite having five heart attacks since the age of 37, Cheney's severe preexisting conditions haven't kept him from having first-rate medical coverage. That's a virtue of being obscenely wealthy, but it's also a virtue of being able to get on a government plan that's carried over into a private career as a paid speaker and writer.

Under Obamacare, middle-aged men who lose their jobs (or, like Cheney, jump back and forth from public- to private-sector employment) won't face being priced out of comparable coverage because of the preexisting conditions they racked up at the previous job. Nor will they face employers' unilaterally altering the conditions of their insurance—like, say, noting that they're old men with heart disease and drastically lowering the lifetime coverage limits for heart disease treatments.

All these are things Cheney got to enjoy via the government teat. These primo packages for elected federal officials don't get into the cynical rescission business that the rest of us face. For one thing, pissing off millionaires with huge media access is bad form. For another, your coverage tends to get swank when you design it, then legally fund it through the wallets of a nation.

Obamacare isn't perfect. It's a handout to private insurers—one that guarantees a slightly less permafucked hegemony over America for at least another generation. Two, it probably won't do much for administrative costs. But at least the PPACA protects against manipulating lifetime coverage limits and denial for preexisting conditions, ensuring people aren't hostage to employer whims or elimination of coverage.

It's easy to sympathize with internet wags and their moments of outrage. "Why is Cheney still alive?" is a satisfying question, because he sucks, and, give or take the weight, he might as well be the Beastie Boys' "Heart Attack Man." But the answer to that question is that he has wonderful health insurance coverage. There's no shame in having Dick Cheney to kick around some more because he's found union with the International Brotherhood of Heart Havers. The shame is that we don't have countless other people around because they lack a comparably generous safety net.

Well, that, and that Dick isn't currently slamming a baseball against a wall, McQueen-style, waiting to be tried as a war criminal. But, in a pinch, there's a quarter of a billion Americans who'd probably forego that option if they had his luxurious access to Not Dying. Those last two words should have been the left's focus on his medical care, not an argument easily dragged back down Death Panel Trail. Getting angry at Cheney missed the point: with such a critical decision pending from the Supreme Court, it was time to get angry on behalf of everybody else.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.

"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo? and a former political blogger for Vice.com. He has also contributed to GQ.com and SomethingAwful.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and email him here.