It's not every day that a sitting senator takes to the floor to call out a GOP strategist. But on Wednesday, Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley did just that, whacking messaging guru Frank Luntz for writing a blueprint for demonizing health care reform and Republican officials for dutifully following his lead.
"Now, you may think that I'm raising this document before you, this -- this plan for how to kill health care, and that maybe it doesn't have any bearing on the real debate," said Merkley, a freshmen Democrat, from the floor, waving a thin set of white papers in his right hand. "But it absolutely does. These talking points are being echoed in this very chamber in order to kill health care."
What followed was a point-by-point comparison of Luntz's 28-page memo, distributed to congressional Republicans, to some of recent talking points coming straight from the mouths of GOP leadership. Said the Senator:
Here we go. Frank Luntz's memo, that's his memo on how to kill health care, came out in April. It says - talking point number five - "Health denial care horror stories in Canada and other countires do resonate, but you have to humanize them. You notice we recommend the phrase 'government takeover' rather than 'government run' or 'government control.'" Why? Because government takeover sounds even scarier.
So what did we hear in the chamber from our minority leader just recently? I quote - "Americans are concerned about a government takeover of health care and for good reason." And it goes on. So recognize that that is a point that's coming from a document about how to kill health care, not a responsible debate about the plan we have in front of us.
Merkley's remarks represent a new line of political debate about the reform process. The extent to which Democrats can establish that opposition to greater government involvement in health care is driven by poll-tested talking points, as opposed to legitimate ideological disagreements, could go some ways towards affecting the legislative process.
To be certain, progressive health care advocates also have well-tuned talking points and polling data at their disposal. But the conventional wisdom going into the upcoming reform battle has held that the Clinton-era effort at an overhaul was, in part, derailed by massive and correlated effort between private industry actors and sympathetic Republicans.
There is little public appetite for that happening again. Hence the benefits in putting Luntz at the center of the debate.