Health Care Security Bill Passes in Spite of Dreadful Messaging

05/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Joseph Romm Editor,; Author, 'Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln & Lady Gaga'

Once again Democrats waste time talking about process, while Republicans spin their lies about supposedly bad outcomes.

I sat through the House debate on CSPAN on the health care security bill yesterday. Democrats repeated the phrase "health care reform" dozens and dozens of times, thereby missing a real messaging opportunity.

No serious messaging strategy can possibly be built around the phrase "health care reform." Why? First, "reform" is a process, not an outcome. No one serious about moving public opinion talks about process over and over again. They talk about the benefits that reform brings, outcomes the public cares about. Second, most of the public likes their health care, so the phrase "health care reform" is not intrinsically positive and, in fact, is probably negative for much of the public given the more effective conservative messaging.

If you spend half your scarce messaging time talking about "health care reform," while your opponent spends all of their time messaging on negative outcomes that the public worries about, you are fighting with one hand tied behind your back.

Here a quiz:

1) What's worse from a messaging perspective, "the public option" or "cap-and-trade"? Hint: Both are process.

2) Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says is the benefit of passing a health care reform bill.

3) Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says happens if we fail to pass the climate and clean energy bill.

On health care, no simple, repeated core message exists, so the whole effort is a muddle.

Like the 99% of people who aren't experts on health care reform, only very recently -- 12 months too late -- have I begun to develop a clear idea of what this plan is or what it would actually do. The problem is, many if not most people could probably care less about the uninsured -- they just don't want to join that group -- and while people may say they want cost containment, in fact they don't want their own costs "contained," they only want their premiums lower. They do want security about their health care.

Again, the single phrase that the Democrats repeat most often is "health care reform" whereas the single phrase that Republicans repeat most often is "government takeover." Is it any surprise the polling on this bill is so bad?

As Frank Luntz -- the bane of climate progressives (see Bush climate speech follows Luntz playbook: "Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah.") but an undeniably astute conservative messaging guru -- has said:

"There's a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you're absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time."


A vote for this bill is a vote for health care security. You get to keep your health care coverage if you like what you have -- and they can't throw you off of it if you get some expensive disease or get fired. And you get access to health care coverage if you don't have it, and they can't keep it away from you if you have a pre-existing condition. And this bill keeps whatever health care you have or get affordable, so you don't have to compromise your health to pay for other necessities.

Health care security. Health care security. Health care security.

On climate, at least we have the simple positive message: clean energy jobs, jobs, jobs. Plus energy independence/security. That is a key reason public support has held firm even in the face of a multimillion dollar campaign of fraud and disinformation by the fossil-fuel-funded right wing:

Ironically, many progressives don't even know how strong the polling remains for the clean air, clean energy jobs bill that increases energy independence while preserving a livable climate.

But the health care debate does show that even half-assed messaging -- with conviction -- coupled with an intense political effort can deliver legislation when progressives have large majorities.

Now Obama needs devote as much effort to climate and clean energy as he has to health care. If he can't pass a more popular bill that already has bipartisan support -- and which is more important to the health and well-being of future Americans -- then his tremendous health care success will not save his presidency from being judged a failure.