Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Out of Context on Health Care

Obama ad twists McCain's words on health care 'deregulation.'


An Obama-Biden ad falsely claims McCain says he wants to "do the same to our health care" that "Wall Street deregulation" has done to the banking industry.

The ad relies on a single phrase from a journal article under McCain's byline, in which he said he would reduce regulation of health insurance "as we have done over the last decade in banking." But the full context reveals that McCain was referring narrowly to his proposal to allow people to purchase health insurance across state lines.


The Obama-Biden campaign released the ad Sept. 22 and said it will air on national cable TV networks. It claims that McCain said he would "reduce oversight of the health insurance industry … just 'as we have done over the last decade in banking.' " But the ad takes the comments out of context, failing to explain what exactly McCain meant by the comparison to banking. He was talking specifically about allowing the sale and purchase of health insurance plans across state lines.

[TET ]Obama-Biden Ad: "Article"

Obama: I’m Barack Obama and I approved this message.

Announcer: We’ve seen what Bush-McCain policies have done to our economy. Now John McCain wants to do the same to our health care. McCain just published an article praising Wall Street deregulation. Said he’d reduce oversight of the health insurance industry, too. Just "as we have done over the last decade in banking." Increasing costs and threatening coverage. "A prescription for disaster." John McCain, a risk we just can’t afford to take.[/TET]

McCain's words come from an article under his byline in the September/October issue of "Contingencies," a journal of the American Academy of Actuaries. Here's what the McCain article actually said, in full context:

McCain: I would also allow individuals to choose to purchase health insurance across state lines, when they can find more affordable and attractive products elsewhere that they prefer. Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation. Consumer-friendly insurance policies will be more available and affordable when there is greater competition among insurers on a level playing field. You should be able to buy your insurance from any willing provider—the state bureaucracies are no better than national ones. Nationwide insurance markets that ensure broad and vigorous competition will wring out excess costs, overhead, and bloated executive compensation.

Note that McCain began by speaking of buying insurance "across state lines." His comparison with banking regulation was limited to "opening up the insurance market" to "nationwide" competition to "provide more choices" to consumers.

McCain has in fact touted this aspect of his health care plan for months. His Web page on health care prominently says:

McCain health care plan: An important part of his plan is to use competition to improve the quality of health insurance with greater variety to match people's needs, lower prices, and portability. Families should be able to purchase health insurance nationwide, across state lines.

Obama used this misleading accusation on the campaign trail over the weekend. In Daytona Beach, Florida, on Sept. 20, Obama said: "So let me get this straight – he wants to run health care like they've been running Wall Street."

The analogy to banking in the article was poorly timed, given recent financial events, though it's likely it was written well before Wall Street's crisis reached its climax last week. McCain senior adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin complained to reporters that Obama misunderstood what McCain meant: "If Barack Obama thinks that today's financial troubles were caused by policies which allowed Americans to use an ATM anywhere in this country, then it is better that he continue to be silent about solutions to the crisis on Wall Street," he said. Holtz-Eakin told the Wall Street Journal that the article was talking about provisions that allowed for banking across state lines, which were approved in 1995 – not "over the last decade," as the article said.

Obama adviser Jason Furman said that it seemed to him that McCain was referencing 2004 rules that, the Journal reported, "pre-empted state banking regulations and that, [Furman] argues, helped bring on the current financial meltdown." McCain did not cite specific legislation. But it is clear he was comparing such regulations to his proposal to allow the sale of health insurance across state lines.

We’d also note that this was not "an article praising Wall Street deregulation," as the ad says. Wall Street itself is never mentioned, and the only reference to banking or the financial industry is that one line about regulation over the past decade.

This ad reminds us of another by the Democratic National Committee that took McCain's comments out of context. That ad charged that McCain wanted to stay in Iraq for 100 years, but his full remarks showed that he was talking about a peaceful presence in the country, much like U.S. troops' presence in Japan or South Korea, two examples McCain used in his remarks. McCain said staying in Iraq for a hundred years "would be fine with me, as long as Americans, as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed." The DNC left that part of the quote out of the ad.

An Accurate Quote

The Obama-Biden ad ends by calling McCain's plan "a prescription for disaster," as those words, credited to the Boston Globe, flash on screen. Unlike the first quote cited in the ad, this one is accurate. It comes from a Sept. 21 Globe editorial that compared McCain's and Obama's health care plan, raising objections to McCain's. Here's the quote in context:

Globe editorial (Sept. 21): There is no comparable lab test, however, for the radical revision of healthcare that McCain is proposing. For all of his moderate positions on immigration and climate change, on healthcare he has endorsed a right-wing ideologue's vision: destroy employer-based coverage and turn Americans over to the tender mercies of private nongroup insurers in an unregulated environment. It's a prescription for disaster.

Obama and Biden may share that assessment of McCain's plan, as their ad says. But the ad's main criticism rests on distorting McCain's words rather than evaluating an actual component of his health care proposal.

–- by Lori Robertson and Brooks Jackson


McCain, John. "Better Care for Lower Cost for Every American." Contingencies, Sept./Oct. 2008.

Editorial. "World apart on healthcare." Boston Globe, 21 Sept. 2008.

Meckler, Laura and Nick Timiraos. "Crisis Draws Attention to McCain Social Security Plan," 22 Sept. 2008.

Balz, Dan. "McCain Health-Care Article Fuels New Clash Over Economy." Washington Post, 21 Sept. 2008.