In recent years, the fight between Republicans and Democrats has extended beyond political issues to the very language used to frame debates. Are they “estate taxes” or “death taxes”? Do you say “global warming” or “climate change”? Republicans have been more successful than Democrats at this sort of mind game, with one possible exception: “Obamacare.” Brian Mackey has the story of a word that’s gone from pejorative to rallying cry.
It’s a question of political etiquette: when one is in mixed company — liberals and conservatives — how does one refer to President Obama’s federal health care law? If you want to be non-partisan, you can use its formal name: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But who has time for that?
CANNON: “Some people call it Puh-Paca. But – right, rolls right off the tongue.”
Michael Cannon works on health policy for the libertarian Cato Institute. He was in Springfield earlier this year trying to convince Illinois legislators to hold off on implementing the law. He’s not a fan of the formal name on principle:
CANNON: “I can’t call the federal health care law the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,’ because that title is completely misleading. It’s not going to protect patients and it’s not affordable.”
But Cannon says he can see why some people are offended by the shorthand “Obamacare.”
CANNON: “So I try to say ‘health care law,’ I try to say ‘health care overhaul.’ ”
That’s just the sort of thing Illinois state Sen. Don Harmon would appreciate. A Democrat from Oak Park, Harmon this year brought a hearing to a halt in order to correct a Republican who was using “Obamacare.”
HARMON: “It’s a sophisticated form of name-calling, and it’s extraordinarily effective.”
Harmon is keenly aware of the success Republicans have had in using language to tilt public opinion in their favor.
HARMON: “There’s immense power in naming something. There is a whole political subculture in branding ideas and people in a way that is unflattering and creates a political advantage in those who oppose it.”
When the GOP wanted to fight “estate taxes,” they began calling them “death taxes.” It was intended to get people who would never be rich enough to have to pay an estate tax to begin caring about the issue — the idea being while only rich people have estates, everybody dies.
Harmon sees the same forces at work with the word “Obamacare,” even though he’s a big fan of the president’s Affordable Care Act.
HARMON: “So if it is known in perpetuity as ‘Obamacare,’ I think it’ll be a testament to his efforts on that front. In the moment, however, it is clearly a political attack designed to undermine both the president and the law.”
GOV. MITT ROMNEY: “Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money to pay for it. Obamacare’s on my list – I apologize, Mr. President, I use that term with all respect.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: “I like it.”
ROMNEY: “Good. OK, good. …”
This is from the first presidential debate. Did you hear what the president said? “I like it.” He drove it home a bit later in the evening.
OBAMA: “And ironically, if you repeal Obamacare – and I have become fond of this term, ‘Obamacare.’ …”
He came to it slowly, but over the course of the past year, Obama and his fellow Democrats have warmed to “Obamacare.” You can even buy an “I [heart] Obamacare” bumper sticker to support the president’s reelection campaign.
Geoff Nunberg is not surprised by this. He’s a linguist who teaches at the U.C. Berkeley School of Information and is regular contributor to NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
Nunberg says there’s a long history of politicians trying to co-opt language that’s been deployed against them.
GEOFF NUNBERG: “ ‘Reaganomics,’ for example, began as a scornful term for what George H.W. Bush had called ‘voodoo economics’ in the 1980 Republican primaries. And ‘Reaganomics’ now is a term that Republicans embrace proudly.”
Nunberg suggests Democrats left themselves vulnerable to the “Obamacare” slander when they named the law in the first place. He says if there had been a clever acronym, like was done with the PATRIOT Act, things might have been different.
But in the absence of that, Republicans seized the opportunity. They would brand the program with Obama’s name, tapping into some American’s deep dislike of the president.
NUNBERG: “His name itself has become a stand-in – at least for people on the right – for all of the things they hate about him, whether they just hate his policies or whether they hate the fact that he’s a Kenya-born, Muslim, radical commie.”
Nunberg says “Obamacare” fits right into that idea, which is still at play in the present election. But he says people with those feelings weren’t going to vote for Obama anyway — whatever his signature healthcare legislation is called.
For now, it seems both sides will go on trying to use the term to their advantage.
ROMNEY: “Help us defeat Obamacare.”
OBAMA: “And I don’t mind the name because I really do care.”
The future of Obamacare — both the phrase and the law — has yet to be decided. Its legacy is inextricably bound to the political fortune of the man for whom it’s named. And about that — we’ll know soon enough.
— Brian Mackey
Support for WUIS’s Health Desk comes from Springfield Clinic.
— Support for WUIS’ Health Desk comes from Springfield Clinic.