The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Let’s talk about ‘The Jimmy Kimmel Test’ for a second, and not the one that you think

If the GOP is not going to take its own policy ideas seriously, comedians might as well pick up the slack.

Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel attacked the Cassidy-Graham health-care plan on Sept. 19, and mocked Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) for failing his own standard. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Twice this week, ABC late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel has lit into the Cassidy-Graham health-care bill.

As the above clip shows, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) ain’t pleased with Kimmel.

Neither is the conservative commentariat, albeit for somewhat different reasons. National Review’s Theodore Kupfer suggests that Kimmel has waded into waters that are way too deep for his shallow comedian brain:

Policy expertise is hard-won and not likely to dawn suddenly during crises. It’s also not something that resides in people who make jokes for a living. Just as Kimmel is entitled to share his opinion, his audience is entitled to seek more-informed ones …
Sanctimony degrades comedy. Who really laughs at The Daily Show, Full Frontal, or Last Week Tonight? But more importantly, swapping two unrelated discursive forms corrodes public discourse. Policy isn’t funny, and comedy isn’t policy. Kimmel’s love for his son is understandable. But his epistemic humility ended after the accurate admission that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to health care. It’s irresponsible to pontificate on subjects one knows little about, but that didn’t stop him from calling Cassidy a liar.
Once we substitute even sincere feelings for policy expertise, the results are unlikely to please anyone. Jimmy Kimmel can be funny, and he loves his son. Well and good. But Jimmy Kimmel knows policy? To paraphrase another comedian, comedians are not public intellectuals.

I am not an expert on health care, but I am an expert on public intellectuals and celebrities talking about policy. There’s a lot to unpack here.

The first and most obvious point is that the primary person to blame for Kimmel’s intervention into the health-care policy debate is … Cassidy. He’s the one who coined “The Jimmy Kimmel test.”

Kupfer writes, “perhaps it was a mistake for a senator to arrogate rhetorical supremacy to a comedian,” but the point is that Cassidy did it. That happened. In some ways, Cassidy’s coinage created an obligation for Kimmel to speak out on the issue. If Cassidy pushed for a bill that violated the Jimmy Kimmel test and the late-night comedian remained silent, some may have viewed it as a tacit endorsement of the bill.

Second, was Kimmel wrong in his policy pronouncements?  PolitiFact analyzed Kimmel’s statements, and concluded:

Kimmel goes too far in his criticisms, but he has grounds for waving the red flag. Solid protections under Obamacare have been replaced with squishier state options. There would be less money for health care, and while some would argue that states can do more with less, life might not turn out that way.

To put even a finer point on it: Is Kimmel more wrong than Cassidy? Politico’s Dan Diamond talked to a bunch of health-care policy experts and concluded that the answer is no:

In the war of words between Jimmy Kimmel and Sen. Bill Cassidy, the late-night host has the better grasp of health policy, health care analysts say …
Cassidy’s plan “would pave the way for insurers to deny coverage to people with a history of medical conditions,” five HIV/AIDS groups warned in a joint statement on Tuesday …
“Graham-Cassidy, like the previous Senate ‘repeal and replace’ proposals, takes a fiscal crowbar to Medicaid’s knees,” warned Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families. Those cuts could disproportionately affect children, program director Joan Alker added.
“Kimmel did not overstate the impact,” Alker said. “If Graham-Cassidy becomes law, there is no guarantee a child born with a congenital heart defect will get the coverage they need. It would depend on where they live, but even states with good intentions would struggle to protect children with the massive cuts to Medicaid included in this bill.”
The proposal’s significant cuts to Medicaid and other changes to the ACA’s regulations would lead to dramatic reductions in coverage for adults too, analysts say.
“It is likely that the bill, if enacted, would lead to a loss of health insurance for at least 32 million people after 2026,” the left-leaning Commonwealth Fund’s Sara Collins wrote in a post on Wednesday, citing Congressional Budget Office analysis of similar legislation.

Kimmel is no expert on health care, but the experts on health care that Kupfer valorizes sure seem to agree with the talk-show host on this point. Indeed, Kimmel himself was careful to cite them in his monologue:

Oh, I get it, I don’t understand because I’m a talk-show host, right? Well, then help me out! Which part don’t I understand? Is it the part where … the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Hospital Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, Lung Association, Arthritis Foundation, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, ALS, the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the March of Dimes, among many others, all vehemently oppose your bill? Which part of that am I not understanding?

As for Cassidy’s expertise, the Huffington Post’s Jonathan Cohn analyzed his rebuttal of Kimmel and found it … wanting: “with literally his first sentence, Cassidy did the very thing that had drawn Kimmel’s ire: The senator made wildly misleading claims about his controversial bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

Third, Kupfer makes a valid point about policy expertise being difficult to develop during a crisis. But what is fascinating about the Cassidy-Graham project is that they seem to be rushing so quickly to vote on this bill that genuine experts are having a hard time envisioning how it would work.

Regular order ain’t happening with this bill, not even close. Cassidy-Graham is being rushed too quickly for the Congressional Budget Office to score it. In an effort to try to ram in through, the bill’s writers are offering a telling sweetener to Alaska. Reason’s Peter Suderman concludes, “in essence, they would be attempting to bribe Murkowski to vote to repeal Obamacare by letting her state keep Obamacare.” Furthermore, the bill as written also seemed to emphasize speed over all else. It would force states to build new health-care systems from scratch in less than two years. Even experts critical of Obamacare think this is a reckless idea.

Finally, Kupfer suggests that comedians don’t qualify as public intellectuals. That’s the Jimmy Kimmel test that is worth exploring. Kupfer blasts the late-night talk show host for basing his policy advocacy primarily on his own experience. But that inductive approach to promoting ideas is exactly how many “thought leaders” develop their ideas. It is definitely how many conservative thought leaders do so. It’s clearly how Trump approaches policy, during the half-hour every day the former celebrity reality-television star can be bothered to care about it.

One can debate whether this is a good thing for the marketplace of ideas. But as I noted in “The Ideas Industry,” and others (see Matt K. Lewis or Tom Nichols) have noted elsewhere, it is definitely a trope among conservatives. If Kupfer dislikes it, he is awfully late to this party.

Would I prefer a world in which KimmelSeth Meyers or Samantha Bee were less political? Good God yes (except for Bee). But I would also prefer a world in which GOP senators cared more about the content of the bill than political partisanship. But as Vox’s Dylan Scott reports, that is not the case:

“This is not the best possible bill — this is the best bill possible under the circumstances,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told Vox’s Jeff Stein. “Look, we’re in the back seat of a convertible being driven by Thelma and Louise, and we’re headed toward the canyon. … So we have to get out of the car, and you have to have a car to get into, and this is the only car there is.”
Grassley was even more blunt.
“You know, I could maybe give you 10 reasons why this bill shouldn’t be considered,” he told local reporters this week. “But Republicans campaigned on this so often that you have a responsibility to carry out what you said in the campaign. That’s pretty much as much of a reason as the substance of the bill.”
So when you cut through the salesmanship around state flexibility and the evils of Obamacare, Senate Republicans will tell you right to your face why Graham-Cassidy, a bill nobody had taken seriously until a week ago, might very well pass the chamber in the next few days. They promised to repeal Obamacare, and this is the only Obamacare repeal bill left.
That’s it.

If the GOP is not going to take its own policy ideas seriously, comedians might as well pick up the slack.

The problem is not that comedians are aspiring to wade into public policy. The problem is that our politics have become so stupid and totalizing that comedians can’t do their job properly without talking about it.