Frank Luntz tells Republicans: Call Obamacare repeal "repair" instead

Paul Ryan is already taking the GOP spin doctor's rebranding suggestion: "To repair ... you have to repeal"

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published February 2, 2017 5:30PM (EST)

Frank Luntz   (AP/Rogelio V. Solis)
Frank Luntz (AP/Rogelio V. Solis)

Republicans' most prominent pollster and communications strategist is advising the party to shift its language on Obamacare from "repeal" to "repair," now that the GOP controls both chambers of Congress and the White House.

Republicans in Congress voted to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act more than 50 times under President Barack Obama. They won several elections at every level by pledging to quickly repeal the health insurance reform law that has expanded coverage for nearly 20 million Americans. But now that President Trump is running the country and Republicans control the levers of power in Congress, the impassioned rhetoric from years past has given way to a more tempered approach — with Republicans shifting their goal on Obamacare from repealing and replacing the law to a more modest goal of simply repairing it.

Fearing backlash from a base that has been promised complete repeal for years, Republicans have turned to an old friend for advice on how to sell the hard realities of dismantling the popular law. (A Jan. 6 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 75 percent of Americans either are opposed to Congress repealing Obamacare or want lawmakers to wait until they have a replacement ready before repealing it.)

During the GOP's closed-door policy retreat in Philadelphia last week, master political consultant Frank Luntz offered Republicans a better way to brand their strategy, Bloomberg reported Wednesday:

Using the word repair “captures exactly what the large majority of the American people want,” said Frank Luntz, a prominent Republican consultant and pollster who addressed GOP lawmakers at their retreat.

“The public is particularly hostile about skyrocketing costs, and they demand immediate change,” Luntz said in an e-mail response to questions. “Repair is a less partisan but no less action-oriented phrase that Americans overwhelmingly embrace.”

Luntz presence at last week's GOP retreat was curious given that on election night he claimed that "no one will call me a Republican again" after he incorrectly predicted that Hillary Clinton would defeat Trump.

“I’m not part of that system, I’m not part of that negativity. This is not something I was involved in this year. I will leave it to others to explain and to try to get themselves out of this mess,” he said at the time.

Luntz, of course, is most infamous for advising Republicans to initially fight the Affordable Care Act as "government takeover" that will lead to "death panels."

"Takeovers are like coups," Luntz wrote in a 28-page memo back in 2009. "They both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom."

Given that his very early advice to Congressional Republicans to block all of Obama's initiatives paid off electoral, it is little wonder Republicans returned to seek advice from their political guru and are already walking lockstep in spreading the word of "repair."

When asked about plans for the health care law this week, Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander described the GOP's task at hand as first "repairing the damage that Obamacare has done," and then "repealing the parts of Obamacare that caused the problem."

“I think it is more accurate to say repair Obamacare because, for example, in the reconciliation procedure that we have in the Senate, we can't repeal all of ObamaCare,” Alexander told CNN. “Obamacare wasn't passed by reconciliation, it can't be repealed by reconciliation. So we can repair the individual market, which is a good place to start."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and another key player in the health care debate, said Wednesday that as much as he supports repealing Obamacare, Republicans should also "try and repair the law."

"I'm for repealing it and starting over, but you can certainly look at the good things that may be part of the law," Hatch said. "There are some good things that we would put in any bill."

GOP Rep. Greg Walden, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a key player on health care, admitted in an interview Wednesday "that there are some of these provisions in the law that probably will stay, or we may modify them, but we're going to fix things, we're going to repair things.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, has gone so far as to explicitly reject the slogan of “repeal and replace.”

The better term is to repair Obamacare and repeal what we can then we can replace," he told a Wisconsin radio show this week.

“Regardless of who was elected president, we were going to have to do major repairs on the Affordable Care Act,” fellow Republican Susan Collins of Maine echoed during a hearing held Wednesday on the individual insurance market.

Luntz's spin job already appears to be so successful that it has scarred some more hardline conservatives into pushing back.

House Speaker Paul Ryan first so tried the “repair” language shortly after he was advised by Luntz.

"We’ve been working with the administration on a daily basis to map out and plan a very bold and aggressive agenda to make good on our campaign promises and to fix these problems — to repeal and replace and repair our broken health care system,” Ryan said at a news conference during the Philadelphia retreat.

But when he was asked about the “repair” strategy  Thursday on Fox & Friends, Ryan tripped over himself to walk it back and said there was a “miscommunication.”

“So what we kind of got going on here is, I’ve got a confluence of words,” Ryan said during the interview. “To repair the American health-care system, you have to repeal and replace this law, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Former GOP senator and Heritage Foundation president Jim Demint was also quick to take to Twitter Wednesday -- along with several conservatives:

“I’m hearing a lot of members say that they want ObamaCare-lite,” right-wing Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) told The Hill this week. “That’s not what we promised the American people.”

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

MORE FROM Sophia Tesfaye