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

‘Train Wreck’ Ad Goes Off the Rails

A conservative TV ad misconstrues Sen. Max Baucus’ infamous “train wreck” statement to claim “there’s bipartisan agreement that Obamacare isn’t working.” A Baucus aide tells us that the Democratic senator “remains a major supporter of the law,” and that the ad takes his words out of context.

It’s true that Baucus warned four months ago of “a huge train wreck coming down.” But Meaghan Smith, an aide to the Montana senator, said, “He was clearly commenting specifically on a concern he had regarding one aspect of implementation of the law — the rollout of the public awareness campaign,” not the law itself.

The Senate Conservatives Fund went on the air with the TV ad Aug. 27. It features Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and urges viewers to tell Congress to “defund Obamacare.”

Cruz opens the ad by saying, “There’s bipartisan agreement that Obamacare isn’t working. Democratic Senator Max Baucus, the lead author of Obamacare, says it’s a huge train wreck.” The screen shows the words: “Sen. Max Baucus, (D-Mont.) ‘I just see a huge train wreck coming down…and I don’t see any results yet.’ “

But Baucus didn’t say “Obamacare isn’t working,” and he wasn’t referring to the law itself when he said “it’s a huge train wreck.” He was referring to the education and outreach efforts of the administration during implementation of the law.

The ad uses a snippet of a five-minute exchange that Baucus had with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at an April 17 budget hearing. Baucus said he was “very concerned that not enough is being done so far” to educate small businesses and individuals about the law. He told her he had been hearing from constituents who “have no idea what to do, what to expect.” Baucus pressed her for details on the administration’s outreach efforts.

Baucus: I just tell you, I just see a huge train wreck coming down. You and I have discussed this many times and I don’t see any results yet. What can you do to help all these people around the country going, “What in the world do I do and what — how do I know what to do?”

Sebelius: Well, Mr. Chairman, as you know and we have had these discussions a number of times. We certainly take outreach and education very, very seriously. It’s one of the reasons that I think we were incredibly disappointed that our request for additional outreach and education resources were not made available in the CR [continuing budget resolution] of 2013.

We asked Smith, a Baucus aide on the Senate Finance Committee, if the senator thinks that the law “isn’t working” and that “it’s a huge train wreck.” In an email, she told us: “[I]f you look at the context of that hearing and Senator Baucus’s exact comments, he was clearly commenting specifically on a concern he had regarding one aspect of implementation of the law — the rollout of a public awareness campaign. He remains a major supporter of the law, which is why he wants to ensure it is implemented correctly, so millions of Americans have the information they need to finally get the affordable health care that the law provides.”

Smith gave a similar answer on the day of the hearing to the New York Times.

New York Times, April 17: As chairman of the finance committee, Mr. Baucus was instrumental in securing the law’s passage in 2010. He remains a strong proponent, a spokeswoman said.

“He still thinks it’s a great law, and he just is very intent on seeing it implemented correctly and making sure that all the benefits are communicated to people thoroughly,” said Meaghan Smith, a committee aide.

Smith’s statements then and now are consistent with what Baucus said at the hearing. He prefaced his remarks by reading an opening statement in which he said: “If the administration implements it correctly, millions more Americans will gain access to health care next year as a result of the law.”

Republicans have seized on Baucus’ phrase “huge train wreck,” using it to declare the law a failure before it has been fully implemented. It’s certainly fair to say that Baucus is concerned about the potential for failure if the law isn’t correctly implemented. But the ad goes too far when it claims “the lead author of Obamacare” thinks the law itself is “a huge train wreck” and “Obamacare isn’t working.”

— Eugene Kiely