We can now pinpoint the exact moment when the Obamacare Census Bureau conspiracy theory lost its intellectual credibility on the right. On Wednesday night, Michael R. Strain, a resident scholar at the right-leaning, pro-business, and anti-Obamacare think tank American Enterprise Institute, argued that the change to the Census survey's health insurance questions was dumb, but not a conspiracy. "I would be shocked if any such thing was taking place," Strain wrote. "I see no evidence of a conspiracy here." At the very least, it's a poorly executed one — the new survey will collect 2013's pre-Obamacare data.
On Tuesday the New York Times reported that the Census Bureau was changing the questions it asks people about health insurance in its Current Population Survey, to the point that the answers wouldn't be comparable to past years. The timing seemed suspicious, and as Strain delicately put it, "some on the right have suggested that this change is evidence of a conspiracy — of the White House trying to rig the statistics in such a way that makes Obamacare look more effective than it actually is."
The reaction was stronger than a "suggestion." MSNBC's Joe Scarborough called the move a "particularly clumsy effort" to "cook the books," in a segment picked up by Breitbart News. The Huffington Post rounded up tweets from the staffers of several politicians — Eric Cantor, Ted Cruz and John Boehner's included — who thought this all seemed pretty convenient. The Wall Street Journal and The National Review argued the change was deliberately meant to mask the effects of Obamacare. And on the far right, Rush Limbaugh explained that the "Regime" is "changing the questions that they ask people here to rig the results, and if you don't like it, you are a racist."
We'd argue that Strain is not a racist. It's unfortunate that we won't be able to compare the 2012 numbers to the 2014 numbers, but the 2013 numbers will be comparable. "If this were a conspiracy then you would think the conspirators would have obscured the ability of researchers to make any before-and-after change," Strain writes. He also notes that the survey questions were bad and the effort to change them pre-dates Obamacare, and there are surveys like Gallup that aren't under government control. It was still dumb to change the survey, "and Census should have known better," but "it’s a long walk from bad decision to conspiracy."
Not everyone is convinced. John Podhoretz, the editor of the conservative Commentary, tweeted "I don't know, @MichaelRStrain--the Obamans are many things but they're not dumb." The conspiracy lives on, just without the support of one of the right's most credible think tanks.