How the phrase public option undermined health care reform.

How the phrase public option undermined health care reform.

How the phrase public option undermined health care reform.

Scrutinizing culture.
Oct. 13 2009 1:58 PM

Worst Framing Device Ever

How the misbegotten phrase public option has undermined health care reform.

Blah. Blah. Pubic Option.

In the history of political euphemisms, has there ever been a more empty, vacuous, mystifying, or counterproductive phrase than public option? It's the bastard child of inbred wonk culture and fashionable "framing" theory. The product of people who talk mainly to one another (the wonks) and the people who invent ways for the wonks to talk down to other people (the framers).

Contemporary framing theory is traceable to UC-Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff, who has persuaded many Democrats that their problem is not their policies but the words they use to describe them. Its popularity is a symptom of the way marketing culture has transformed politics to the point where Democrats abandon actually defending the substance of their principles and instead attempt to devise rhetorical tricks that reek of focus grouping to sell them.

Framing theory made its debut as a meme after John Kerry's '04 loss as a rationale to explain the election's surprising (to Democrats) result. As rationales go, this one was both simple-minded and disingenuous. It treated ordinary people outside DuPont Circle as linguistically manipulable sheep who would fall for any clever framing device because they're too stupid to see how they're being condescended to. It was reducible to a snide doctrine: "We must reach out to the rubes."

And thus—voila!—we find ourselves graced with public option. An obfuscating, near-meaningless, certainly contentless, two-word phrase that has done more damage to the fate of meaningful health care reform than its reviled two-word counter-framing rival, death panels.

Let me stipulate at the outset that I am someone who favors some version of the provision the all-too-clever wonkish framers—followed by journalists and bloggers—have insisted on saddling with the terminally inscrutable name public option. And I think polls show that a majority of the American people favor it when the concept has been explained without the use of that idiot euphemism. (Consider my colleague Mickey Kaus' analysis of the language used in polling the issue. When the Times/CBS pollsters described it, fairly accurately, as "a government administered health insurance plan—something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and older can buy," it got nearly two-thirds support. Note no use of public option.)

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But most polls show that Americans are evenly divided on or opposed to Obama's overall health care plan, of which the public option is, or was, the heart. And a Times poll of Sept. 24 shows that a 55 percent majority believes the White House has failed to explain its health care reforms adequately.

Fifty-five percent, many of whom would be in favor if the reforms were presented to them in plain language and who would be putting pressure on their reps to pass it. Imagine if health care proponents had explained it clearly in the beginning!

As Jill Abramson, managing editor of the New York Times put it this week in an interview with the paper's public editor: "If people had understood it more, would the politics have turned out differently? … I don't know."

She's being kind. Even if you believe in the virtues of framing, public option has to be the worst failure in framing history. It's hard to fathom the blind insistence of pro-Obama health care types on robotically repeating public option without further explanation over and over and over again, as if repeating something inexplicable makes it more understandable. Journalists and bloggers are part of the problem, accepting the meaningless phrase they were handfed by the wonkish famers as if it were more important to show you've earned your Wonk Club Merit Badge than to attempt to clearly explain an essential element of reform.

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My colleague Timothy Noah says he's "baffled" by the disconnect between the public's support for the substance of this aspect of Obamacare and the lack of any feeling of a groundswell of support that will push some version of it through Congress.

Like it or hate it, death panels was brilliant propaganda; the phrase aroused passion. It may have been misleading (if you took it literally) but at least it led somewhere. Public option leads nowhere.

I've argued that the phrase death panels was really a clever, black-humored, Lenny Bruce-type satiric hyperbole (something liberals couldn't conceive that Sarah Palin might be capable of—or even capable of hiring someone else to come up with). It's a framing device that nonetheless provoked an important debate on the real issue of "rationing" care. (See Joe Conason's shrewd response, which was to say, essentially, Yeah there are death panels, people rationing care, already! They're just being run by profit-minded private health-insurance companies.)

One thing is for sure: Fear of imagined death panels inspires more passion, pro and con, than the vapid, empty-of-substance public option inspires love and support. Nobody's storming the barricades in the fight for a public option. Unless you count the ludicrous assemblage of white-coated doctors whom the White House gathered for a presidential health care photo op. The resulting scene made the poor docs all look like Groucho Marx' hilarious fake Dr. Hackenbush—or the guy in the ad who used to say, "I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV". Who's running the framing shop at the White House? I thought these guys were good at it. After all, "hope" and "change" … Live by the frame, die by the frame.

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I think it's telling that in a credit-grabbing town (isn't there still a struggle over who came up with axis of evil?), nobody is stepping forward to claim credit for coining public option.

I have not seen any reference, in any of the millions of words of reportage and wonkage I feel I've read on "the public option," to the name of the person responsible for the term. I'll happily give credit to anyone who shows me proof that it's his or her brainchild. (I'm not holding my breath.)

You may think I'm exaggerating the damage the phrase done in undermining the natural base of support for the program which it obscures so cluelessly. But take a look at the first Google page for "public option." Of the 33 million (!) hits returned when I searched for the term on Oct. 1, the first page was entirely dominated by links that I'd classify, with a nod to Maimonides, as Guides for the Perplexed.

"What is the public option, anyway?"-type links, including my favorite, a YouTube video entitled, superenticingly, "Robert Reich explains the public option in 70 seconds."

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A mere 70 seconds! The poor guy. What wonk saddled him with this thankless task? The description makes it sound like some fantastical, inscribing-the-Bible-on-the-head-of-a-pin type feat of discourse—or a charadeslike party trick with a high degree of difficulty.

Why did Obama supporters endlessly, relentlessly, robotically push this useless, sterile, self-defeating phrase? Why not find another phrase, one that could cut Robert Reich's time down from 70 seconds to seven. Or seven words. "A government-sponsored health-insurance safety net." How about that? Or just two words: "Government heath care safety net." (OK, I guess that's four and a half.) True, these alternative phrases don't plumb the depths of the policy, but at least they offer some useful clue as to what the speakers are talking about. Try it yourself: I'm sure you can do better than public option.

But public option is not the only example of how the White House has allowed itself to be captured and dragged down by the dead hand of insular wonk culture and framing obsessives. Take cap and trade—or, as it's often familiarly referred to, cap 'n' trade.

I don't know how long it would take Robert Reich to explain this one yet, but consider this comment about it by Sen. John Kerry, a person often roundly criticized for failing to frame shrewdly enough.

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According to the New York Times, Kerry "sought to change the vernacular surrounding the climate bill and sell its concepts more broadly, insisting it is not a 'cap and trade' proposal but a 'pollution reduction' bill. 'I don't know what "cap and trade" means. I don't think the average American does,' Kerry said. 'This is not a cap and trade bill, it's a pollution reduction bill.' "

I think somebody's gone to remedial framing school. But, you know, he's right! If you're gonna try to sell me something, take some time to think about what you're calling it. I really love the oblivious think-tank condescension behind cap and trade. It sounds so folksy! Kinda like Cap'n Crunch. You can see the Dupont Circle think tank savants celebrating the clever bit of phrase making they'd pulled off. People in the flyover states will be comfy with it! Yet it's so profoundly useless as a communication tool.

Comfy with what? Cap what? Trade what? How? Who? Sure, people could look up the details and some Robert Reichian figure could explain it. But it would be just as easy, as Sen. Kerry noted, to call it a pollution reduction bill. Again, some people might argue whether this plan will or won't reduce pollution, but at least everyone would know what they're arguing about. Is the point of naming these bills to show how sophisticated and insidery you are or to mobilize people's support?

It's interesting to compare the public option and cap and trade fails with the one triumph of the phrasemakers: cash for clunkers. Bull's-eye!

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So Obama's team is capable of coming up with something catchy beyond hope and change. Why, then, did they adopt public option? Let's indulge in some speculation:

First of all, public. Using this word seems like a clear attempt to avoid using the word government, because the conventional wisdom is that people distrust government. How could the people not love public?, the thinking must have been. They are the public! The trouble is that this defensiveness is so craven and obvious. It cedes the ground to the people who demonize all government programs as "socialism." The great achievement of the New Deal was to make the prospect of limited government interventions into an amoral market economy something the public could support. (The TVA, for instance, was a public option that served to keep power-company pricing competitive.) But liberals have allowed "free market" fetishists to make government always the enemy—not, for instance, the social safety net for the unfortunate.

But by calling it public—Hey, everybody likes public parks; everyone's in favor of being "public-spirited," right?—the evasion of government or government-sponsored is so obvious it almost comes across as sneaky. It's the condescension in the euphemism that grates, I think. The phrasemakers have too much contempt for the average citizen to think they won't hear the evasive false note in public. People don't like to be treated as gullible rubes.

Then the phrasemakers chose option. A word that carries no weight at all, no signification, no additive value, no connection to health, illness, affordability, competitiveness, any of the virtues that they could have highlighted in a two-word phrase they planned to use to build support for their policy.

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I had a discussion with a clued-in writer from a political Web site (who prefers not to be identified) and he agreed that public option has been a disaster. He thought option might have been a substitute for choice—choice being too much of a hot-button word, since it potentially brings abortion rights into the equation. He had noticed, he said, a dismaying tendency of liberal groups to try to disguise or make more palatable their agendas by retreating from naming them directly rather than fighting for their substance. The example he gave was a recent communiqué from an environmental group that was concerned that the legislation it was lobbying for not be called environmental bills but, rather, energy bills.

All frame, no picture. It's not gonna be a winning strategy. It's like the ongoing attempt to rebrand liberal as progressive. It's defeatist, internalizing the delegitimizing shame that they've allowed liberal to be tarnished with. It's not going to help the "progressives" make any progress.

It's sad, because if you have to retreat from the language, pretty soon you won't have the words adequate to defend the substance. The framers have allowed themselves to be framed.

It all reminds me of the very first episode of Mad Men, which captures one of the great moments in the history of framing. It actually had a health care tie-in, now that I think about it. Lucky Strike is trying to deal with the bad publicity surrounding then-new health concerns about tobacco. Don Draper didn't abandon tobacco as a selling point. He took back tobacco but just changed the focus, the frame. His new slogan for Lucky Strike tobacco? "It's toasted."

It was mendacious, but it worked. Maybe the White House should fire its framing team and bring in Don or his modern equivalent. If you're gonna play the frame game, get a pro. Give health care the equivalent of "It's toasted." Otherwise, the public option is looking more and more like toast.