GOP pollster Luntz plans talking points against healthcare reform

The famous language specialist is giving congressional Republicans tips on how to win a tough fight, and if they listen, it just might work.

By Alex Koppelman
Published May 6, 2009 3:00PM (EDT)

It's a tough time to be a Republican who opposes Democratic healthcare reform efforts. President Obama is popular, Americans are still hurting due to country's economic woes and just about everyone is fed up with the current system. Fortunately for the GOP, they're getting advice from their old master of language, Frank Luntz -- and he's still got his old skills.

Politico's Mike Allen got a look at a memo Luntz penned for Republicans on the Hill in which the veteran consultant outlines the debate and the ways the GOP can score points. Most importantly, he says, "You simply MUST be vocally and passionately on the side of REFORM... If the dynamic becomes 'President Obama is on the side of reform and Republicans are against it,' then the battle is lost and every word in this document is useless."

Much of the language Luntz proposes is familiar to anyone who's heard arguments against further government involvement in health insurance, but it's still pretty powerful. These kinds of tactics did work, after all, during the Clinton administration, and if Democrats aren't careful, they could find that their efforts are in trouble this time around as well.

Via Allen, some key points from Luntz's memo:

(1) Humanize your approach. Abandon and exile ALL references to the "healthcare system." From now on, healthcare is about people. Before you speak, think of the three components of tone that matter most: Individualize. Personalize. Humanize.

(2) Acknowledge the "crisis" or suffer the consequences. If you say there is no healthcare crisis, you give your listener permission to ignore everything else you say. It is a credibility killer for most Americans. A better approach is to define the crisis in your terms. "If you're one of the millions who can't afford healthcare, it is a crisis." Better yet, "If some bureaucrat puts himself between you and your doctor, denying you exactly what you need, that's a crisis." And the best: "If you have to wait weeks for tests and months for treatment, that's a healthcare crisis."

(4) The arguments against the Democrats' healthcare plan must center around "politicians," "bureaucrats," and "Washington" … not the free market, tax incentives, or competition. Stop talking economic theory and start personalizing the impact of a government takeover of healthcare...

(5) The healthcare denial horror stories from Canada & Co. do resonate, but you have to humanize them. You'll notice we recommend the phrase "government takeover" rather than "government run" or "government controlled" It's because too many politician say "we don't want a government run healthcare system like Canada or Great Britain" without explaining those consequences. There is a better approach. "In countries with government run healthcare, politicians make YOUR healthcare decisions. THEY decide if you'll get the procedure you need, or if you are disqualified because the treatment is too expensive or because you are too old. We can't have that in America."

(10) It's not enough to just say what you're against. You have to tell them what you're for. It's okay (and even necessary) for your campaign to center around why this healthcare plan is bad for America. But if you offer no vision for what's better for America, you'll be relegated to insignificance at best and labeled obstructionist at worst. What Americans are looking for in healthcare that your "solution" will provide is, in a word, more: "more access to more treatments and more doctors…with less interference from insurance companies and Washington politicians and special interests."

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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