Friday Talking Points [76] -- Countering The Luntz Playbook On Health Care

Friday Talking Points [76] -- Countering The Luntz Playbook On Health Care
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I realize that, as a political blogger, I am supposed to be talking about President Barack Obama's preferences in cheeseburgers today. Sigh. The "What kind of mustard?!?" debate currently raging (which followed the intense "Medium-well?!?" debate -- I wish I were kidding about this, I really do) among the right wing of the blogosphere is no doubt historically important (right up there with George H.W. Bush's aversion to broccoli), but I would instead like to talk about something a little more serious today. To the purveyors of the burger debates, I would like to say one thing first, though. This is America. We value our freedom here. And that includes the freedom to eat your burger any damn way you want to -- without having to apologize to anyone for your choices. You can even eat your burger with broccoli on it if you want, it makes no difference to me. That is the nature of freedom, and I'm surprised I even have to point this out.

Sheesh. But before we get to the serious subject of the day, which involves health care and the Republican's favorite spin doctor, we have to delve into even more lunacy first. Because Georgia is apparently laying the legal groundwork to secede from the Union. In a stunning 43-to-1 vote, the Georgia state senate voted in support of "nullification." Similar bills have been passed in South Dakota and Oklahoma, as Hendrik Hertzberg reports in the New Yorker.

If you're like most Americans, you are scratching your head and saying: "Nullification... nullification... I know I heard that term in history class in school... wasn't it something about the Civil War?" You would be right in thinking this. The concept of "nullification" is that individual states can ignore federal laws whenever they feel like it. When a state doesn't agree with something the feds put into law, they can conveniently just thumb their nose at Washington and go on their merry way -- even if that merry way includes leaving the United States of America.

If you are now thinking "didn't we settle this whole question by fighting a war over it?" then you would also be right. If you've got the time, read the text of the bill itself. It is couched in flowery legal language, but it could have come straight out of the 1860s South. Stripped of its pretentiousness, it states that the Constitution should be optional, and if Obama tries to take away our guns and ammo, we're outta here. If you think that is an exaggeration, read the bill itself and then decide.

It's worth reading for sheer nuttiness alone. But we've got a lot to cover today, so we must press on past the freakshow of nullification in Georgia (and South Dakota). At least in Oklahoma, the governor vetoed the bill, stating that the bill "does not serve the state or its citizens in any positive manner."

Being a slow week otherwise in the Democratic sphere, I am going to award this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award in tandem with this week's talking points.

So this week's MIDOTW award goes to Oregon's Senator Jeff Merkley, who penned an excellent response to Republican consultant Frank Luntz' talking points document on health care which was leaked this week (we'll have more about this in the Friday Talking Points section, below).

Democrats simply cannot be complacent about the fight over health care reform. It's going to be a tough road politically. And we now have the other side's political strategy out in the open, so there will be no excuse for not being able to counter this stuff by the time the fight really begins this summer.

But for getting out in front of this fight, and immediately fighting back for what he believes, Senator Jeff Merkley was most impressive indeed. Health care reform is not "just going to happen." It's going to take a lot of work, and part of that work means putting a public face on the Democratic proposals, and undercutting the Republican obstructionism.

For admirably doing so this week, Merkley wins the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. Well done, Senator!

[Congratulate Senator Jeff Merkley on his Senate contact page to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]

President Barack Obama was disappointing last week, for two reasons. First, he seems to really not want to talk about gay marriage -- even after another state passed it into law. His stance on the issue has always been that he's for civil unions, and not for gay marriage, but his silence on the issue isn't exactly making him a lot of friends on the left.

But, again, he's really just being consistent with what he said on the campaign trail, so it's hard to fault him too much for doing so.

However, it's pretty easy to fault him for truly breaking a campaign promise. Because his budget continues the federal ban on money for needle exchange. As a candidate, he was for "repealing" this ban, or "overturning" it. Needle exchange has been proven very effective at slowing the rate of transmission of AIDS, so it can be a life-or-death issue.

But, in yet another disturbing example of removing Obama positions from the White House web site, his support for repealing the ban just went down the memory hole. The budget he unveiled this week actually keeps the ban in place, and the language he had on the White House website conveniently disappeared at the same time.

The Obama webmasters already had to walk back a sneaky attempt to change Obama's positions last week on Obama's support for "repealing" the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy on gays serving in the military. The word "repeal" briefly morphed to "change," until an outcry caused them to re-insert the word "repeal" once again (this caused me to award Obama a MDDOTW last week, I should mention).

Now, I do get that Obama probably wants to push these contentious social issues down the road a bit, because he's got bigger goals to achieve at the moment. Politically, that makes all kinds of sense. But the method being used does not make any sense at all. Obama's web team, and Obama's policy thinkers who approve these changes, need to realize that Obama's followers are extremely web-savvy. And making sneaky changes to language on the White House web site is going to be noticed. So if Obama wants to change his stances on issues, or even delay them or downgrade their priority, they need to bite the bullet and come out and publicly admit they are doing so. Because this is a very worrisome trend from the White House.

But I've given Obama a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award for two weeks running, and he did have more important things on his plate this week -- like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a Supreme Court Justice nomination to think about. So I am only giving Obama a (Dis-)Honorable Mention here this week.

Because up on Capitol Hill this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proved once again why he simply should not be the leader of the Democrats in the Senate. Arlen Specter jumped the aisle last week, as everyone knows, and became a Democrat. Reid apparently promised Specter things he couldn't deliver, such as Specter being credited for his 29 years as a Republican when it came to figuring seniority. I wrote about this whole mess yesterday, if you're interested in all the gory details.

The upshot, as opposed to what it means for Specter (see yesterday's article), is that Harry Reid once again appears weak and unable to control his caucus. Although Specter means the possibility of a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority for the Democrats in the Senate, to get there we've got to have some leadership that can actually deliver it when needed. Unfortunately, we have Harry Reid.

Harry Reid has won the MDDOTW award more times than anyone else in the history of this column (counting this week's, this makes nine times he has been so dishonored). It's not hard to see why.

[Contact Senator Harry Reid on his Senate contact page to let him know what you think of his actions.]

Volume 76 (5/8/09)

Frank Luntz is one of those Republicans that is both respected and feared by Democrats. And rightly so. Because Luntz is a master at the business of teaching Republicans how to speak. He gets paid a bundle of money for doing this sort of thing, unlike amateurs such as myself on the web. [Note to Democratic Party: I will cheerfully accept bundles of money for writing this column, just to let you know....]

This week, a strategy document from Luntz was leaked. The letter was to Republicans, and it had a ten-point plan for how to defeat the health care reforms that will be up for debate later this year in Congress. Every Democrat who cares about fixing our health care system should read this document, because it is "the other team's playbook" and you will be hearing these talking points over and over again in the next few months by Republicans everywhere.

Because we've got the other side's battle plan in advance, though, Democrats can get ready to counter these arguments before they are made. The fight for better health care is going to be a tough one, so every advantage in this fight should be embraced. I should mention at this point that a Democratic professional, George Lakoff, beat me to the punch and already posted his advice on countering Luntz at Huffington Post today. But his talking points are a bit more polite, whereas mine are a bit more visceral, so I think there is room enough for both our takes on the situation.

The basic battle is going to come down to whether Americans will be given the choice of a "public option" (as Democrats would say), or "government-run health care" (as Republicans would say). The idea is simple. Don't change health care for people who already have it and want to keep what they're used to. That way, if people are happy with their health care, they don't have to do anything, and nobody is "taking" anything away from them. But for everyone else, offer a government health care plan as a choice in the marketplace of health care. Allow people to buy in to Medicare, for instance.

Government health care spends about three percent on overhead (processing claims, all the paperwork, etc.). Private health care spends upwards of fifteen percent. Because government can do it cheaper, Republicans are trying to say that this is some secret plan to kill off the private health care industry by stealth means. In other words, they are admitting that government could do something better than private industry, because it doesn't have to worry about the profit margins.

That this argument goes counter to Republican orthodoxy for the past three or four decades does not seem to bother them, it should be pointed out.

But conservative inconsistencies aside, the entire 28-page document (available in PDF format from Think Progress) needs to be at the top of the reading list of every Democratic member of the House and Senate this weekend. If that's too much for you, Politico has a good overview, complete with Luntz' ten talking points.

Thankfully, though, Luntz provides polling data which show not only why the Democratic position is more popular, but why. And, also thankfully, Luntz (via his "negative examples" for Republicans) shows exactly how to counter his talking points. In other words, Republican pollsters spent a lot of money doing the research, meaning we don't have to. See, we're saving money already!

Ahem. Sorry, got carried away for a moment, there. Won't happen again, I promise.

But seriously, when you dig into what Luntz has to say, he shows exactly how to talk about health care reform in a way that will resonate with Americans. Luckily, we've got an easier job than Republicans in convincing the people, because they already agree with the most basic Democratic premises on health care -- every family has a health insurance horror story. Meaning "the system is broken" is not something we have to convince people of. The Republicans, meanwhile, have only fear. Which brings us to our first talking point.

Fear itself

This one is easy. Reminds people of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's immortal words "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Republicans know this is a loser for them. From the Luntz letter (emphasis in original):

It's not enough to just say what you're against. You have to tell them what you're for. Overt attacks against the Democratic proposals will fail if they aren't balanced with your solutions. It's okay (and even necessary) for your communication effort to center around why the Democratic-supported "government takeover of healthcare" is bad for America. But if you offer no vision for what's better for America, you'll be relegated to insignificance at best and labeled obstructionist at worst.

This is the number one talking point for Democrats. The Republicans have nothing. They were in charge for eight years, and the American public got nothing. They are fighting to keep the system exactly as it has been, and refusing to even see how broken it is. The only thing they can do is try to frighten America with dire warnings that any change proposed is going to be horrible. Boil all of these down to one line, shamelessly evoking F.D.R., the man who gave us Social Security.

"The only thing Republicans have to offer on health care is fear itself. Because they have nothing else in the way of ideas. Their idea of 'reform' is to keep the status quo, and refuse to take on the health insurance companies. And the only way they see to do that is to scare everyone with fear-mongering rather than have an intelligent debate. It worked for them when Bill Clinton tried to reform health care, but it is not going to work this time around. The American people are smart enough to see through the Republican fear machine."

Obama is for reform, Republicans are against it

Once again, from Luntz' document:

The status quo is no longer acceptable. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe significant reform is needed - and they see Republicans (and the insurance companies) as the roadblock. If the dynamic becomes "President Obama and Congressional Democrats are on the side of reform and Republicans are against it," -- which is exactly what Obama has already started to promote -- the public will side with the Democrats and you will lose both the communication and the policy.

And, earlier:

If the dynamic becomes "President Obama is on the side of reform and Republicans are against it," then the battle is lost and every word in this document is useless.

Later, he cautions not to take Obama on personally:

Your political opponents are the Democrats in Congress and the bureaucrats in Washington, not President Obama. Every time we test language that criticized the President by name, the response was negative - even among Republicans. Americans want solutions, not politics.

. . .

If you make this debate about Republicans vs. Obama, you lose. But if you make it about Americans vs. politicians, you win.

Well, thanks, Frank, for pointing out an excellent point: use Obama's name as much as possible. Work the president's name into every other sentence when talking about health care reform. And paint the sides exactly how Luntz tells Republicans not to paint it.

"President Obama and the Democrats in Congress are on the side of health care reform, and all the Republicans are against it. It's like they don't even realize there's a problem out there. Republicans are busy fighting hard to save the big insurance company profits, while President Obama is trying to fix a broken system. If you take out the public option out of Obama's plan (as the Republicans are fighting to do), the whole exercise becomes nothing more than worthless tinkering around the edges -- and the American people know that. Which is why they support what Obama and the Democrats are trying to do here, and what the Republicans are fighting not to do. The choice is obvious."

Democrats want to end medical bankruptcy

This cuts to the core of the weakness of the Republican argument, because they simply do not have an answer for this. And it is a real and very worrisome fear among Americans of almost every income group. Republicans talk a lot about "containing costs" and "making health care affordable," but they never specifically address what Luntz reports is "the biggest cost concern among all cost components" -- the threat of catastrophic expenses. He says this is the first or second biggest fear among two-thirds of the public. And, once again, the Republicans simply do not address this at all.

"I hear a lot of Republicans talk about what wonderful savings we can have in the health care system by reforming waste, fraud, mismanagement, and malpractice lawsuits, but you know they never seem to address the main fear of the vast majority of Americans -- that they will have to declare bankruptcy if a member of their family gets sick. If your child fell ill, or your wife or husband, Democrats think you should not have to spend your life's savings on their care. It's that simple. We are seen as an embarrassment and disgrace by the rest of the developed world, because getting sick here often means bankruptcy. If you've worked hard your whole life, made responsible plans for the future, and then are faced with a devastating illness, President Obama and Democrats believe you should not be financially devastated as a result. Republicans do not agree. This is why they never talk about the number one fear most Americans have -- because they don't have an answer, and are happy to continue things the way they are. That is unacceptable."

It's not about government "taking over," it's about giving people the freedom to choose.

Luntz spends a huge amount of time ratcheting up the fear of "government-run" or "government-controlled" health care, or (his preference) a "government takeover" of health care. These all are supposedly-scary terms, meant to frighten everyone against the "public option" Democrats are proposing (that's a good term, by the way, and should be repeated often -- the public just loves options). This "takeover" nonsense needs to be attacked ferociously.

"Excuse me, did you say a 'government takeover' of health care? How, exactly, is the government 'taking over' anything, when every single American will have the choice -- note that word: choice -- of a public option as opposed to private health insurance. How will the government 'take over' health care, when all Democrats are for is giving the American public a choice? If people don't want the government plan, they simply will not choose it. We are not going to force anyone to make that choice, we just want the option available in the health care marketplace alongside what already exists. How is that a government takeover? If people find that the public option is what they want, they will freely choose it. That is what Democrats are for -- the freedom to choose your own health care. How can Republicans be against freedom? Do they think the American people are too stupid to make choices for themselves on health care? We don't, which is why we favor giving them the choice."

If a public option is so horrible, nobody will choose it, so what's the problem?

This is the core doublethink at the heart of the Republican argument, and needs to be exposed as often as is humanly possible. Lean on the fact that Republican politicians don't want YOU to be able to CHOOSE your health care plan.

"How can the Republicans say at the same time that the public option is going to 'take over' American health care, and that the public option will be absolute Hell on Earth? If even one-tenth of the Republican fear-mongering about the public option were true, then you know what? Nobody would sign up for it. So how is something that is going to be so horrendous going to take over health care? Do the Republicans just think all Americans are stupid, or what? If we give the public the option to buy into a system like Medicare -- which most seniors are pretty happy with, by the way -- and they wind up hating it, they will opt for a different plan from private insurers. Word will quickly get around that the public option is bad, and it will fail on its own merits. Republican politicians would rather make that choice for you -- instead of giving the American people that choice. Talk about politicians limiting health care from Washington! My question to Republicans is, if you are convinced the public option is so bad, then what are you afraid of, exactly? If the public option is as bad, or even a fraction as bad, as you say, then it will fail in the marketplace -- remember the free market Republicans are usually for? We Democrats don't think the public option is perfect for everybody, which is why we give people a choice instead of forcing them to accept something they don't like. So either the Republicans are lying when they say the public option is so bad, or they are lying when they say it'll take over the American health care system. You can't have it both ways. If the public option is a good one, a lot of people may sign up for it. But if it's not a good one, nobody will sign up for it. So what's the problem?"

Republicans simply can't see the problem, because they're out of touch with the people

This is an easy one. Luntz even directly addresses it:

Acknowledge the crisis or risk the consequences. Fully 70% of Americans consider our healthcare system to be either in a state of crisis or seriously troubled and requires significant reform. While it is true that the "crisis" response has dropped significantly in the past 15 years, the percentage of Americans who think the system needs significant reform has soared. So you say there is no healthcare crisis, you are telling those 70 percent that you are ignorant of their fears and concerns.

Which, of course, Republican politicians mostly are. They have health care, their friends have health care, everyone they know has health care... so they simply don't see the problem, or its human dimension. Well, OK, maybe not every Republican, but this is a place to paint with a broad brush.

"Republicans in Washington seem to have a problem understanding that not every single American is happy with their health insurance, or happy with today's health insurance system. They seem not to understand the millions of people who are terrified to change jobs because they could lose their health insurance. Republicans proved, in the debate about children's health care, that they are willing to vote against helping the most vulnerable Americans of all -- our children. It took not only a Democratic Congress to get that passed, we had to wait for a Democrat in the White House to sign it -- a president who knows the word 'compassion' isn't just a meaningless campaign slogan. Republicans don't seem to understand the fears of bankruptcy almost every American has had at one point or another. Republicans really should get out a bit more and talk to normal Americans -- hard-working citizens who have absolute horror stories about how they have been treated by for-profit private health insurance companies and HMOs. If Republicans truly understood how widespread the crisis in American health care is, they might be more disposed towards actually working to come up with solutions to the problem. Half the problem is a lot of Republicans don't even see there is a problem. Democrats do understand the problem. We get it. We're trying to fix it. If Republicans would get on board, or get out of the way, we could go a long way towards that fix."

I'll believe you when you give up your own taxpayer-funded socialized medicine, Senator

This is the ultimate insult when debating a Republican member of Congress, when they are trying to justify why the American public should not have the choice of "government-run" health care, because it goes straight to their personal hypocrisy on the issue.

"Excuse me, Senator, but I can't help but pointing out that the health care you receive from the American taxpayers could be called 'socialized medicine' as well. And yet, I notice that you accept this health care -- which is paid for straight out of the American taxpayer's wallet. Are you over 65? Have you refused all Medicare benefits, since you are so adamant about the evils of 'socialized medicine'? If you are trying to limit American citizens from getting the health care you yourself enjoy, which is incidentally paid for by those very same taxpayers, why should anyone listen to what you have to say? You are saying 'I've got mine' and at the same time 'nobody else should get to choose what I've got' even though they're paying for yours. I will start to listen to you on the evils and dangers of government health care when you voluntarily give up your own government health care and go out and buy insurance on the open market. By doing so, you might begin to understand the crisis as the average Americans see it... but until you do, I have to say you're being somewhat of a hypocrite, Senator."

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground

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