Thursday, February 9, 2012

Plum Line: Lift

Over at Plum Line today, I talked about the possible effects of an improved economy -- and why it's possible that conventional wisdom is too pessimistic. See Ezra Klein this morning for more on the latter point.

It's not original to me, but one of the relevant points here is one that people have made about "Obamacare" -- that it's a risky slur to use. If the president is popular with swing voters, then it's a slur that's apt to backfire! Of course, this only highlights the big problem for Republicans these days, one that will surely be on display at the big CPAC meeting in Washington that began this morning: they increasingly speak to, and in the language that sells to, a fairly small fraction of the public.

I don't want to oversell that point -- it's only something that matters around the margins to begin with, and you can be sure that Mitt Romney will attempt to escape it once he finally secures the nomination -- but I do think it's real. Most Americans just don't think of Barack Obama as someone who spends all his time playing golf and who is incapable of speaking in public without a teleprompter, and at the same time there's a big chunk of Republicans who don't want to listen to anything else (and are apparently willing to spend ungodly sums of money to subsidize anyone willing to speak that language.

18 comments:

  1. This reminds me of the debate around the time a poll was released showing large percentages of Americans thinking Obama to be a Muslim. I've long believed, partly based on my experience talking to right-wingers, that many of the people who say Obama is a Muslim don't actually believe it in a literal sense, but rather use "Muslim" as a kind of vague, mindless slur. (I made the case here, in an email to Andrew Sullivan's site.) I almost have this image in my mind of a guy saying, "My house just got foreclosed, and my boss said I ain't getting a raise, and tax day is ahead. Aaargh! Obama is a Muslim!"

    I definitely suspect that the popularity (or lack thereof) of the health-care bill, with or without the moniker "Obamacare," operates at least partly according to this principle. I'm not totally sure, however, since its ratings have remained remarkably stable from the time of its passage, defying predictions by Democrats that it would become more popular over time. I think it is stymied by the mandate, which will probably continue to be unpopular regardless of the president's numbers.

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    1. Good comments, Kylopod. Thanks. As for the mandate, based on what seems to have happened in Massachusetts, I think there's a case to be made that the mandate will continue to be unpopular...until after it goes into effect.

      Right now, "mandate" is a vague, and vaguely threatening word. After people get their health insurance coverage, it will be more like the "auto insurance mandate"---people aren't wild about it, but they like the peace of mind that comes from knowing they're covered, and they appreciate that it's there when they need it.

      (Here's hoping Obama gets re-elected so we can find out.)

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    2. Right now, "mandate" is a vague, and vaguely threatening word.

      Polls found the individual mandate was less popular when the poll question included an explanation of the term.

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  2. I guess we've been over this before, but I still don't get it. Why do Obama's supporters consider his name a 'slur'?

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    1. Who said they consider the name a slur? The president's name isn't "Obamacare," it's "Obama." "Obamacare" was a term invented by Republicans to disparage the bill. It has its roots in the term "Hillarycare" from the 1990s, also a Republican invention used contemptuously about a Democratic health-care bill.

      If you're asking why taking the president's name and smashing it together with the word "care" results in a term of abuse, just try to imagine what would have happened if this term had been coined by Obama himself and used as the bill's official title. It would have sounded incredibly egotistical. Presidents, at least if their names aren't Trump or Gingrich, do not go around naming bills after themselves.

      When Obama's opponents use the term, they are in effect trivializing the bill's substantive policy consequences and making it sound like the president's personal, pet project he is imposing on the nation, rather than something that was the end result of years of work by health-care experts.

      That said, just because it was created as a slur doesn't mean it has to stay that way. The term "the Big Bang" was coined by the theory's leading opponent, Fred Hoyle, but it stuck. (There are scientists who still object to the term on the grounds that it's inaccurate--the beginning of the universe was neither big, nor a bang--but nobody's come up with a suitable alternative.) Many of the bill's supporters, including Obama himself, have pretty much embraced the term, which I think has defused its power as a slur (as is often the case with slurs).

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    2. If Obama is reelected, the Big Bang can be renamed the Big Obama.

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    3. The president's name isn't "Obamacare,"

      True. But '-care' is the suffix routinely used for such plans. Tennessee has a Medicaid program called 'TennCare'. That's its official name, if I'm not mistaken.

      Thanks for the reply. I still don't get it, but I appreciate the effort.

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    4. The "care" suffix goes back to Medicare, as far as I know. But the point isn't the suffix, it's the use of the president's name in the legislation he signs. That's virtually unheard of. The Social Security Act of 1965 wasn't called Johnsoncare or Lyndoncare. Bush's prescription drug bill wasn't called Bushcare. Reagan's bill mandating that emergency rooms take patients isn't called Ronniecare, and Nixon's proposals weren't called Dickcare.

      Even if you don't understand why this would be pejorative, it remains a simple fact that "Hillarycare" and "Obamacare" were coined as pejorative terms, by opponents of the bills in question. It's similar to the phrase "Democrat Party." I've heard at least three different explanations for why "Democrat Party" is a pejorative expression, but whichever one you prefer, it is undeniable that it is pejorative and was invented by people who were trying to disparage Democrats.

      The point is, if you're puzzled about why "Obamacare" is treated as a slur, the question you should be asking is not "Why do Obama's supporters consider his name a slur?" but rather "Why do Obama's opponents think they can make a slur out of the president's name?" Stop laying it on the back of the Democrats. It isn't Democrats' fault that Republicans use terms like "the Democrat Party" and "Obamacare" as insulting expressions. It isn't Democrats' fault that Republicans seem incapable of conducting a national conversation without resorting to crude, schoolyard-level name-calling.

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    5. Not exactly pejorative, I'd say "Obamacare" is intended to be dismissive, not "real" health care, not something to be taken seriously.

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  3. .....its ratings have remained remarkably stable from the time of its passage, defying predictions by Democrats that it would become more popular over time.

    Correct me if you know otherwise, but I don't think Dems were predicting that the ACA would become more popular by early 2012. The predictions were that it would become more popular as it actually took effect and people were able to see the benefits. That's what was meant by "over time." Most of the benefits haven't kicked in yet; the system won't really be in place until 2014. So it's years too soon to say whether the predictions have been defied. Since the mandate issue is entirely trumped up (the people screaming about it now being in some cases the very people who helped think up and promote the mandate, not least Romney and Gingrich), I doubt it's going to be a long-term drag on the ACA's popularity. One might have said something similar about Social Security, that the payroll tax -- which opponents also sued to block as unconstitutional -- would keep its popularity down. Clearly it didn't.

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    1. >I don't think Dems were predicting that the ACA would become more popular by early 2012.

      I remember that they did argue just that (though I can't find the sources right now). They argued that part of its unpopularity was the ugliness of the process, and that once it was passed that would clear up and they'd be able to focus on defending its provisions. In fact, it did increase in popularity right after passage (and I happen to think the Democrats would have been far worse off had they let the bill die in Congress in early 2010), but it has pretty much stayed the same since then.

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    2. OK, noted. And that argument might have proven true if the Dems had been out selling the thing, which, idiotically, they mostly haven't. But I still think we won't have a good idea of the ACA's long-term popularity until the next presidential election cycle at the earliest. By then, I expect it will (a) be a reality, with tangible benefits for millions of people, and (b) have been dropped as a GOP attack line. These two developments together will be more than enough to push it above 50% approval. The main remaining question will be whether Dems have the good sense (which I doubt) to bash Republicans for having opposed it.

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    3. I definitely think the bill will become more popular after full implementation takes effect in 2014 (assuming the Supreme Court doesn't strike the bill down this year). In fact, it won't just become popular, it will come to be taken for granted by most people. But in this discussion I was focusing on its popularity this year, while Obama is running for reelection.

      I think it's possible Jon's theory is correct and that it will increase in popularity as the economy improves. But I have my doubts. Still, either way I don't think the Republicans have much to gain from running against the bill, because polls also consistently show that repeal is unpopular, and it will probably call greater attention to the GOP's vulnerabilities on the subject, including their views on insurance company policy toward pre-existing conditions. Meanwhile, the fact that the bill has already been implemented for millions of people, who would not appreciate seeing their coverage disappear, will probably be a factor.

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    4. I completely agree. Even if Romney weren't the nominee, they'd be crazy to run a campaign that in effect called for increasing the power of insurance companies. Obama would blow that out of the water (and if he didn't, hopefully his super-PAC would). But Romney's even less likely to run on repeal -- even if he's nominally for it -- because he undoubtedly won't want the subject discussed at all. They're all banking on the Supreme Court at this point, although even a win there could be a poisoned chalice for them.

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    5. All of which would seem to imply a couple of things - not least that some of the most paranoid voices were right from their point of view that "Obamacare" represented an historical turning point. It's difficult to discuss rationally because the entire discussion mixes so many irrational and false constructions - for instance, that a true "free market" was ever or would ever be implemented or even available (in health care especially, or really anywhere). Yet at the same time much of what the conservative movement does and says becomes much easier to understand as a social-psychological phenomenon. The liberal-left, for its own part, exposes its own relative unreadiness to assert its own social and political perspective coherently, in the way that further-left critics of ACA and the rest of Obama policy have wanted.

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    6. Agreed on that too, CK, although I'd say it's more the Democrats who fail to assert themselves coherently; the liberal-left still has people who can make the case well, but elected Dem officials seem to want nothing to do with them -- a significant difference from the dynamics on the right.

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  4. My prediction, if "Obamacare" isn't struck down by the Supreme Court, is that in ten years the Republicans will be accusing the Democrats of trying to undermine it.

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