If you haven’t heard the name Sue Lowden, brace yourself. She is a Republican who might well become a U.S. senator from Nevada, and judging by her idea for containing health care costs — critics call it “chickens for checkups” — she threatens to make Sarah Palin sound like some kind of pointy-headed policy wonk.

Yes, I said chickens.

There is a larger point to be made about the kind of thinking, or non-thinking, that Lowden exemplifies. But first, it’s my duty to recap her perilous foray into health care policy, which sounds like a good premise for a Monty Python sketch.

Lowden, a wealthy gambling executive, leads the Republican field in the primary campaign for the right to challenge the Democratic incumbent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. She a former Nevada state senator, a former head of the state GOP, a former television anchorwoman and a former Miss New Jersey. Polls show her leading Reid by at least 10 points.

Three weeks ago, at a candidate forum, Lowden criticized the new health care reform law and laid out her preferred alternatives. She asserted that “bartering is really good” and that people should “go ahead and barter with your doctor.”

The candidate’s staff quickly issued a statement suggesting that Lowden had meant to say “haggle” instead of “barter,” and that the idea was to offer to pay in cash if medical providers would agree to lower the price. This would make going to the doctor a bit like buying a used car — except that an essential step in the haggling process is threatening to walk away, which would be difficult if your problem was a broken leg. But at least this wasn’t as crazy as what came next.

Last week, in a television interview, Lowden insisted that no, she hadn’t misspoken, she meant actual bartering. “Let’s change the system and talk about what the possibilities are,” she said. “I’m telling you that this works. You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor. They would say I’ll paint your house…. I’m not backing down from that system.”

Reid’s campaign promptly e-mailed the YouTube video of Lowden’s statement to reporters, under the subject line: “Seriously … Has Sue Lowden Lost Her Mind?” Democrats have been having great fun with the “chickens for checkups” idea ever since — how many chickens for a colonoscopy, what procedures might a goat pay for, that sort of thing.

Lowden’s campaign even passed along a testimonial from a doctor who claimed he had “bartered with patients — for alfalfa hay, a bathtub, yardwork and horseshoeing in exchange for my care.” But on Tuesday, Lowden finally gave up and retreated to the taken-out-of-context defense, which is where politicians go when they realize they said something stupid. Bartering was “never a policy proposal,” the campaign said. End of story, Lowden hopes.

Except for the larger point I promised. Lowden’s gaffe was part of a disturbing current in American politics these days: Nostalgia for a golden age that never was.

Her words conjured the image of a kindly old man named Doc who made the rounds of frontier homesteads, presumably in his horse and buggy, and fixed everybody up, good as new — “Just pay me when you can, Sue.” But the truth is that in those days, doctors routinely watched people die from diseases that are easily cured today; simple infections and even childbirth carried grave risks. The care that Doc could give wasn’t worth much more than a chicken.

Today’s reality is that Nevada is a highly urbanized state — almost three-fourths of its residents live in and around Las Vegas — where the collapse of housing prices, the epidemic of foreclosures and the lack of access to health care are as acute as anywhere in the nation. No wonder some people might find a sepia-toned fantasy more attractive.

This same false-memory syndrome infects the tea party movement, which harks back to some imagined time when the United States was a sylvan utopia where everyone walked around peacefully carrying guns and quoting Thomas Jefferson. But this was a big, messy, complicated country even when Jefferson was president, with sharp conflicts over slavery, economic policy and the rights of the individual versus the welfare of all. To mention just a few.

Oh, and doctors really preferred to be paid in money. Not livestock.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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