Democrats Seek Right Message To Boost Health Law

January 14, 2011

Julie Rovner

For Republicans, the message about the new health care law has been simple: It's bad.

"It will ruin the best health care system in the world, it will bankrupt our nation, and it will ruin our economy," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

"The words 'reckless and unsustainable' hardly begin to cover it," agreed House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier. "This bill is an economic and fiscal disaster of unprecedented proportions."

In fact, the bill Republicans are bringing to the House floor for a vote this week minces no words: It's called the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.

Democrats, on the other hand, have had a much more difficult job selling the merits of the law. They have had to explain not only why the bill is good, but also what's actually in it. That has led lawmakers and President Obama on occasion to resort to reciting lengthy laundry lists of provisions. Those have often done more to confuse than to enthuse the public.

A Moral Message Vs. A Policy Message

George Lakoff, a messaging expert and linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says Obama missed a big opportunity during the height of the debate in 2009.

Following a month of controversial town hall meetings around the country, the president gave a nationally televised speech to try to reframe the health care debate. But Lakoff says instead of casting the effort as a moral imperative, "he gave a speech on 24 points of policy."

And Lakoff says that's the big difference between the two parties when it comes to messaging: "Conservatives create moral messages. The Democrats create policy messages, and policy messages either go over people's heads or bore them."

Lakoff says Republicans have been winning the message war on the health care law not just because they have a better-organized and more disciplined messaging apparatus, but because of the language they use.

"What the conservatives did -- what they're still doing -- is using a moral message about freedom and about life. They're still screaming 'death panels' and those are moral messages," he says.

Democrats, on the other hand, are still talking about policy, when they could be talking about freedom and life, too, he says. "If you are sick and you have cancer and you are not insured, you are not free -- and your life is threatened. It is very clear this is about freedom and life."

Making It Personal

Bob Crittenden, however, says he thinks Democrats are getting better at getting their message out on the health law. Crittenden, a family practice physician and medical school professor, is also executive director of the Herndon Alliance, a group that's helped shape the message for dozens of other groups that support the law.

"There's a lot of interest in being very focused and disciplined about how we're going to talk to the American people," says Crittenden, who last summer helped write a series of recommendations to help backers of the law sell it to the public.

A key one was to make it less complicated. "Put the provisions of the health care bill into personal terms, through stories and real things; how it really affects people," he says.

It seems lawmakers are starting to take that advice. For example, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) has taken to telling a story about one grateful constituent who came up to her in a grocery store. "[The constituent] said, 'Debbie, thank you. Thank you for passing health care reform. You saved me $3,000 last year when I was able to put my two adult daughters back on my insurance plan.'"

Crittenden's group said backers of the law should also focus on parts of the measure that have already gone into effect. That includes things like letting young adults get back on their parents' health plans, giving seniors bigger discounts on prescription drugs, and giving small businesses tax credits if they offer health insurance to their workers.

"They're a small part of the bill, but crucial," he says. And, more importantly, "the American people love those things."

Lawmakers seem to be taking that advice, too. Speaking on the House floor, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), highlighted what would happen to those new drug benefits for seniors if Republicans succeed in repealing the law. "'GOP' used to stand for 'Grand Old Party,'" he said. "Now it stands for 'Grandma's out of prescriptions.'"

The Republican repeal bill is expected to pass the House easily but die in the Senate. Meanwhile, the messaging battle is likely to continue, unabated. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.