The right isn’t interested in mental health care or cancer, just bashing Biden

The right's cynical quest to paint President Joe Biden as mentally infirm now has its partisans turning the announcement of a new effort to expand access to mental health care into a story about whether the president claimed to have cured cancer.

Biden announced a “new landmark rule to strengthen mental and physical health parity requirements and improve mental health care access for more than 150 million Americans,” at a White House event on Tuesday afternoon. The rule requires insurance providers to update health plans “to make sure people have equivalent access between their mental health and medical benefits,” according to a White House fact sheet. In his address, Biden said the moves “represent a real step forward to help millions of people get mental health care they need and that insurance should be providing.”

Biden noted that improving mental health care is part of his four-part “unity agenda,” which also includes fighting cancer. According to the White House transcript, he explained (emphasis added):

One of the things I’m always asked is: You know, why — why Americans have sort of lost faith for a while on being — being able to do big things.

“If you could do anything at all, Joe, what would you do?” I said, “I’d cure cancer.” And they looked at me like, “Why cancer?” Because no one thinks we can. That’s why. And we can. We can end cancer as we know it.

Biden has used the “end cancer as we know it” language over and over again in speeches describing his administration’s “Cancer Moonshot,” including in each of his State of the Union addresses. He’s backed those words up with action — on Thursday, he plans to announce a new advanced cancer research initiative modeled on the military’s DARPA program. 

But the MAGA right isn’t interested in cancer policy or -- in spite of their constant refrains to distract attention from guns in the aftermath of mass shootings -- mental health care. Its members prefer to seize on any opportunity to suggest that the president has dementia. Republican political operatives and right-wing media influencers and outlets frequently deploy out-of-context clips of Biden to suggest that he is mentally unfit, and they quickly turned that apparatus on the Tuesday remarks.

The research arm of the Republican National Committee circulated a 12-second clip of Biden’s discussion of cancer with the note, “BIDEN: ‘We ended cancer as we know it.’” Greg Price, a Republican political operative, posted a similar clip and commented, “the dementia is so bad that now he thinks he cured cancer.”

That the president, who has a stutter, either slurred his speech or simply misspoke in this iteration of a frequent refrain both seem much more likely than the possibility he either actually believes his administration eliminated cancer or is trying to pretend that is the case. But the latter explanations are more politically useful for right-wingers, so they ran with those instead.

Right-wing influencers and pundits quickly promoted the Biden clip on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. The clip was deemed evidence Biden is “Brain dead,” had told a “lie,” and is an “idiot taking credit for things that have not been done or he has not done” who is pushing “North Korean dictator levels of bullshit propaganda.”

The smear then moved up the right-wing media food chain., the New York Post, and Twitchy aggregated social media posts to claim Biden had been “skewered” and “mocked” for his statement. The Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal website and hyperpartisan outlets like Western Journal and Gateway Pundit also pushed stories about the clip.

By Wednesday, the story had received enough amplification to reach Fox’s airwaves — though, curiously, Fox Business host Stuart Varney ended up debunking the smear.

“Listen to this, the president says he’s cured cancer, roll tape,” Varney introduced the story. But after airing a clip similar to the one the RNC had promoted online, he said, “Well, he didn’t actually claim to have cured cancer, he just claims to be trying to cure cancer, so I guess [that’s] not quite so bad.”

Video file

Citation From the July 26, 2023, edition of Fox Business' Varney & Co.

Varney’s colleagues at Fox News were less interested in giving Biden the benefit of the doubt. He took criticism for the remark on The Ingraham Angle (“Medical miracle, Biden claims to end cancer!”), Hannity (“If Joe Biden is so great that he’s found a cure for cancer, might I suggest a cure for dementia next?”), and Gutfeld! (“I'm getting word that the president cured cancer”).