08/16/2011 05:17 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2011

To Protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid & Social Security, Call Them "The Middle Class Safety Net," Not "Entitlements"

To win the political debate, Democratic office holders; liberal news hosts like Lawrence O'Donnell, Rachel Maddow, and Ed Shultz; progressive websites like The Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and Talking Points Memo; liberal columnists like Eugene Robinson, E.J. Dionne, and Paul Krugman; and progressive publications like The Nation and Mother Jones, have to change their political vocabulary.

Every time someone else in a discussion starts to talk about "Entitlements", they should say, "Oh, you mean the Middle Class Safety Net." Whenever someone talks about the need for "Entitlement Reform" or "Entitlement Cuts" they should say, "Oh, you mean shredding the Middle Class Safety Net."

Words have meaning in politics. The language that's used to frame a political issue can impact the political outcome. Conservatives and Republicans tend to be much better at coming up with simple catch phrases that reframe the political debate than liberals and Democrats are.

The classic example is Republican pollster Frank Luntz's invention of the phrase "death taxes" to replace the phrase "inheritance taxes". "Death taxes" has negative emotional resonance--Why should someone have to pay taxes just for dying? On the other hand, what's so bad about wealthy heirs paying taxes on their "inheritance", which they didn't earn from their own efforts but just received by having the good fortune of having wealthy relatives who passed away? Progressives would be even better off calling them "Paris Hilton Taxes". In any event, even though inheritance taxes were paid only on a small number of the biggest estates and not by the vast majority of Americans, framing them as "death taxes" changed the political debate and worked to get Congress to raise the floor on which they are paid and lower the tax rate, thus providing millionaire heirs with a windfall and increasing the Federal deficit.

"Entitlements" is a phrase that could have been invented by a Republican pollster. It has the ring of spoiled children who are entitled to something that they don't really deserve. It's also not accurate. The middle class pays for its Social Security and Medicare with their payroll taxes during their working life so that they have something to fall back on in their old age. They're "entitled" to it, not because they're spoiled children asking for treats from daddy, but because society promised it to them in return for 40-50 years of having payroll taxes deducted from their paychecks.

Moreover, the term "Entitlements" treats Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as if they were all the same and have the same problems. Social Security has no impact on the Federal debt and is solvent for 25 more years, after which it will still have enough money to pay 75% of benefits if nothing is done. Lifting the income cap on social security taxes could guarantee its solvency for 75 years. Medicare and Medicaid do pose long-term financial problems, not because of anything inherent in Medicare and Medicaid but because of the overall rate of inflation in health care costs. Actually, cost inflation for Medicare and Medicaid is much less than for private health care. As I've previously written in the Huffington Post, joining the rest of the advanced capitalist world and extending Medicare to all Americans is the best way to cut medical costs and reduce the Federal debt.

Calling Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid the "Middle Class Safety Net" makes it much easier to defend them politically. It's easy for politicians to call for "Entitlement reform" or "Entitlement cuts". It's not so easy to call for shredding the Middle Class Safety Net.