Words, words, words about healthcare -- who cares?

Go ahead and try to spin healthcare reform either way -- you won't get far

Published April 2, 2010 3:03PM (EDT)

Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum writes a fantastic post, in which he throws cold water on Andy Sabl's suggestions for how Democrats should talk about the individual mandate. Sabl's full of ideas about how to frame the issue. Drum, who doesn't buy it, concludes:

Am I being too gloomy here? It just seems like these attempts at precision framing don't usually survive contact with the real world. Comments?

Comments? Exactly right, I think. It's fun to think of clever ways of selling one's policies, but in the real world it's not bound to do much good.  Oh, both sides should try; as long as you don't believe your own propaganda, there's nothing wrong with a good attempt at spinning something. But spin rarely works in the real world, because it doesn't fit the way people evaluate policies. 

Spin has to compete with two far more powerful things -- partisanship, and to a lesser extent actual personal experience. Basically, most politically attentive Americans are going to support or oppose healthcare reform (or most other policies) based on prior partisan attitudes. Republicans are going to oppose it, because Republican elites oppose it; Democrats are going to support it, because Barack Obama supports it. In some cases, however, personal experience may override that -- I expect seniors will like having the donut hole filled in, for example.

What spin, and framing, can do is to change polling results -- it's no doubt true that Sabl's formulation ("government will get you insurance if your employed won't") will poll better than "government forces you to buy insurance whether you want to or not." Frank Luntz has made a career out of finding clever wording that will yield terrific poll results. The problem is that if it's not attached to any underlying beliefs, or subsequent actions, then what's the point? And there is a danger of, as I said, believing your own spin, and forgetting which of your policies are popular and which are not.

For the Democrats and healthcare reform, it's just going to be the case that mandating that young healthies buy insurance is not apt to be popular; Democrats can improve that situation by having larger subsidies, but they can't really change it by spinning it. (Drum's point, that the other side can spin right back, is also important here.) The best bet for Dems is to focus on the portions of healthcare reform that are popular, not to try to fight on the other side's turf.  Although the real best bet for the Democrats is to implement the policy well, so that there are as few as possible actual negative effects as possible.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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Healthcare Reform