The Secret Right-Wing Strategy on Health Care—Exposed!
By Bernie Horn
May 7, 2009 - 9:09am ET
Conservative pollster Frank Luntz recently provided right wingers on Capitol Hill a secret 28-page memo entitled The Language of Healthcare 2009—which has leaked! The memo was intended to offer a message framing strategy to defeat President Obama’s plan to provide health care for all. But the document is more useful to progressives than conservatives.
Dr. Frank Luntz is a right-wing spinmeister who won broad influence by acting as pollster for Newt Gingrich, helping to frame the 1994 Republican Contract with America. Over the last dozen years, corporations and conservative ideologues have paid Luntz tens of millions of dollars to craft their messages, and his research has included “hundreds of thousands of telephone interviews, hundreds of dial sessions and focus groups, and literally a million research hours.” In short, he knows what he’s talking about.
Luntz briefed House Republicans about his findings at a closed-door session yesterday (where he was very angry that his memo had been leaked). The memo is based on polling and dial sessions conducted within the last few weeks. If you want all the gory details, you can read the entire memo here. The substance can be grouped into three overall lessons for progressives.
First, progressive pollsters have been entirely right about health care. Conservatives who oppose reform have very little public support.
Progressives have conducted a great deal of survey research on health care over the past two years, much of it by top pollster Celinda Lake working with the Herndon Alliance, FamiliesUSA, AFL-CIO, and Health Care for America Now.
Lake has made it clear that Americans strongly support progressive legislation to guarantee quality, affordable health care for all, as long as they can choose their doctor, their healthcare package, and their insurance provider.
Fully 70% of Americans consider our healthcare system to be either in a state of crisis or seriously troubled and requires significant reform.
He says to conservatives:
You simply MUST be vocally and passionately on the side of reform. The status quo is no longer acceptable. If the dynamic becomes “President Obama is on the side of reform and Republicans are against it,” then the battle is lost…
The biggest issue is the soaring cost of health care:
Make no mistake: the high cost of healthcare is still public enemy number one on this issue—and why so many Americans (including Republicans and conservatives) think the Democrats can handle healthcare better than the GOP.
Health insurance companies are very unpopular—so much so that Luntz says to conservatives:
We suggest ratcheting up the rhetoric against insurance companies to almost the same degree as you do against Washington bureaucracy. Call the Democratic plan a “bailout for the insurance industry" [because] the two things the American people hate most [are]: Washington bureaucracy and insurer greed.
While conservatives should criticize “Washington,” they can’t attack Obama—he’s too popular:
Every time we test language that criticized the President by name, the response was negative—even among Republicans…. If you make this debate about Republicans vs. Obama, you lose.
At the same time, Republicans start with a big disadvantage:
[The] campaign against government healthcare has left the GOP at least 20 points behind on the issue—perhaps more.
So this is our chance. If we progressives play our cards right, we will finally provide America with the kind of sweeping health care reform it needs.
Second, the best conservative strategy is to frame progressive legislation as a “government takeover” of health care, resulting in bureaucracy, delay, and loss of patient choice. Progressives must block this argument and counterattack.
Luntz tells conservatives that the best and probably only way to defeat the Obama plan is to tell people they personally will experience lower-quality care, and that government bureaucrats will make choices for them.
This is what he recommends as “the best anti-Democrat message”:
No Washington bureaucrat or healthcare lobbyist should stand between your family and your doctor. The Democrats want to put Washington politicians in charge of YOUR healthcare. We can and must do better. Say no to a Washington takeover of healthcare and say yes to personalized patient-centered care.
Here are some other examples of the language he suggests:
The plan put forward by the Democrats will deny people treatments they need and make them wait to get the treatments they are allowed to receive.
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.
If Luntz’s despicable lies sound like scare tactics, they are. In fact, his polling asks people what “frightens” and “scares” them the most about potential health care changes. He flatly told GOP congressmen that:
The idea that a doctor or a hospital would deny care that they need is what frightens them the most about a Washington takeover.
None of this is new to progressives who have been reading Celinda Lake’s survey research results over the years. In fact, the leading progressive health care plans have been structured to rebut these very attacks. Americans—not the government—would choose their insurance plan and their doctors. Everyone would have the freedom to keep their current insurance if they want to. The right wing will make wild claims, but those claims will be demonstrably false.
So we have a good defense. But we have an even stronger response. As Luntz concedes, what Americans don’t like about insurance companies is that they are bureaucratic, deny coverage, and put profit ahead of patients’ health.
Our leading progressive reform proposals address those concerns, prohibiting private health insurers from turning people away, delaying or denying coverage, or raising rates based on a person’s health history. Progressive proposals guarantee grievance and appeal procedures in all types of health insurance, and protect all federal and state patients’ rights. So we should not only defend our program from conservative misrepresentations, we should counterattack that our progressive health care proposals protect Americans from insurance company bureaucrats who currently make arbitrary decisions and improperly interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.
Third, conservatives can’t succeed without offering their own plan for health care reform. Progressives must hound conservatives to lay out that plan—because it will be horrific.
Luntz says over and over that:
It’s not enough to just say what you’re against. You have to tell them what you’re for. Overt attacks on the Democratic proposals will fail if they aren’t balanced with your solutions.
If [conservatives] offer no vision for what’s better for America, you’ll be relegated to insignificance at best and labeled obstructionist at worst.
But Luntz doesn’t know what right wingers should say they’re for. He doesn’t have a vision for their legislation. All he can do is recommend vague language about a conservative plan:
We need targeted reform with measurable results that improves patient care.
And he suggests they talk about:
A balanced, common sense approach that provides assistance to those who truly need it and keeps healthcare patient-centered rather than government-centered for everyone.
What Americans are looking for [is] “more access to more treatments and more doctors…with less interference from insurance companies and Washington politicians and special interests.”
Here, Luntz is being unrealistic. Conservatives on Capitol Hill are ideological extremists who simply won’t put forth a real reform package. When they finally offer a health care plan, it is likely to coddle the insurance companies, do nothing about soaring costs, favor the rich, and be based on preposterous “free market” assumptions. It will fall flat with the American people.
If conservatives succeed in making the debate all about what is good and bad in the Obama plan—if they can get away with just criticizing details—then they probably can have a substantial negative impact. But if they’re hounded into creating and disclosing a substitute health care plan—and the debate is about which is the better plan, Obama’s or the conservatives’—then the right wingers will be marginalized and rendered ineffective by the out-of-the-mainstream proposal that they will inevitably offer. So get ready to hound them!
Incredibly, all this advice from Luntz comes just days after he told a reporter that he’s become a pollster for Hollywood studios because he’s had enough of politics. “I’m tired of selling reality,” he said. “Reality sucks. It’s mean. Divisive. Negative…I don’t like what politics has become.”
I guess hypocrisy goes hand-in-hand with lying.
If you want to stand up and fight against the right-wing lies and for quality, affordable health care for all, visit our friends at Health Care for America Now. They’ll tell you what you can do.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and author of the recent book, "Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People."
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