Saturday, February 11, 2012

Obamacare or not Obamacare?

Over at Washington Monthly, Jesse Singal asked today for opinions about the term "Obamacare." Is it derogatory or is it neutral? Should supporters use it or not use it? People on both side do use it. It's an easy shorthand, less awkward than "the Affordable Care Act." But in using it, are we ceding a propaganda advantage to the right? I'm inclined to say we are. here's my reasoning.

I think the term is perceived as more negative than neutral or positive. The right certainly uses it a sneering scare term hoping to turn it into a liability, like they did "liberal" for the last thirty-five years. But, even if it was merely neutral, I would still be against using it. This kind of personalizing detracts from the actual content of the legislation and turns approval of the legislation into a referendum of whether or not you like Obama. That is, when you call it Obamacare, people who don't like Obama are immediately inclined to hate it and anything about it.

When you call it "healthcare reform" or the "Affordable Care Act" you neutralize it a little, but people are still inclined to think about it as nothing more than the individual mandate, which almost everyone hates.

However, when you mention actual elements of the legislation, like no discrimination for preexisting conditions, you force people to think about it. If someone hates Obamacare and thinks it should be repealed, a position most Republicans and a lot of independents rally around, ask if that means they want to open the doughnut hole or throw college kids off their parents' insurance or repeal tax credits for the smallest businesses to buy insurance. Most will back off from blanket hostility.

Many of the commenters on Singal's post say we need to take control of the word and make a term of pride. I find that naive. That almost never works. It might be something that can be used by a minority group over a long term--"queer" was brought up in the comments--but politics demands results in the short term. Democrats have nine months to convince people that healthcare reform is a greater positive that a negative.

It's always a bad idea to let the other side define your terms, like saying "Social Security reform" when we mean "privatization" and "benefit cuts." Democrats and liberals are really bad at that game. We used to be better at it--New Deal, Great Society, pro-choice. For the last generation, conservatives have run circles around us. They are great at message discipline and we suck at it. We need to relearn those skills.


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