Monday, July 2, 2012

Ach, Luntz

I can't give it a Catch of the Day because I've already done one of those today, but I'll note a nice item by Dave Weigel pointing out all the Republicans using a Frank Luntz-tested phrase about health care reform: "patient-centered health care."

 Of course, the phrase is 100% meaningless, by which I mean that there's absolutely no substantive connection between "patient-centered health care" and...uh, wait a second. I was going to say something about Republican plans for health care, but of course they don't actually have any, beyond returning to the status quo ante. It's just some words that perform well in polling and focus groups, as Weigel reports.

The question is: and then what? See, it's easy enough to poll-test a set of words and phrases and then put them into the mouths of your candidates...but what exactly does it accomplish? Does it affect people's views of the underlying issue? Does it change what people think about the politician who says it? What they think about other politicians? My strong suspicion is that the answer to each of these questions is a solid "no."

Moreover, there's a bit of an opportunity cost here. If you have enough party discipline that you can get everyone to stick to the talking points, why not make those talking points contain a substantive argument? OK, I don't think that's going to sway public opinion very much, either. Most people aren't really listening, after all. Still, that kind of statement can at least educate partisans who want to learn what the party line is; seems to me that it might as well not be mush. Or at least: it would indicate a little respect for voters, including supporters. Which might not matter in any electoral way, but at least might make the whole thing a little less annoying.

Or maybe the only question is: do Republican Party politicians know they're buying snake oil from Luntz?

17 comments:

  1. My guess is yes but the problem is that Republicans really can't say what they really advocate, tax-cuts for the rich and going back to Lochner, without seeming like a bunch of really bad people. We had McConnell's telling comment about 30 million being uninsured not being the issue, which even shocked the Fox News interviewer. Or as Chait pointed, Republicans think health care is a privilege but this isn't something that you can advocate nationally.

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    1. Fair enough, but I guess I have two responses. One is that perhaps if Republicans actually argued for what they wanted, it might get more popular. The other is that this kind of fudging is one of the reasons that the GOP is a mess; they're not willing to adjust their policy positions to something that they can sell, but their also not willing to sell what their policy positions are. Things being as they are, that's not necessarily a big short-term electoral problem (because stuff like the economy steamrolls everything), but I do think it makes it harder for them to pass programs that they want when they win.

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    2. My response is that what even though Republicans are advocating what they want indirectly, they are still making their positions more popular. I'm young, born in 1980, but it still seems that the extreme capitalism, get rid of the New Deal desired by Ryan and many other Republicans is much more popular now than it was when I was a kid. Nor do Republicans seem to have a hard time passing what they want when they win. Since they mainly want tax cuts and tax cuts are the easiest thing in the world to get through Congress.

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    3. I don't think there's any significant change in polling on this stuff since 1980.

      As far as getting what they want...sure, they can get tax cuts. But that's easy; it doesn't take any great communications strategy for stand alone tax cuts to be popular enough to pass. But what else did the GOP pass under unified government? They certainly didn't put a dent into Medicare or Social Security. They did get Medicare expansion, though.

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  2. My question is why don't Dems start calling Obamacare "patient centered" if it polls so hot? Republicans don't have it trademarked do they?

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  3. Well, on the other side we have Lakoff selling snake-oil. Fortunately not everyone is buying.

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    1. The difference is that Lakoff is a serious academic and is basing his advice on theories of political psychology. It's easy to overemphasize the importance of such things -- class and regional differences are more powerful factors, I think -- but this is very different from what Luntz does, which is just flit from slogan to slogan and focus group to focus group. Hence the vapid, meaningless jargon like "patient-centered." If a focus group told Luntz that they liked the word "supercali-fragilistic-expiali-docious," he'd be advising Republicans to work it into every sentence.

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  4. Say, I like the sound of this "patient-centered health care." Where can I sign up for some?

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    1. You should probably vote Republican this fall. They support patient-centered health care, rather than the government-controlled kind.

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  5. Still, that kind of statement can at least educate partisans who want to learn what the party line is;

    That's the political equivalent of carving gargoyles. It's nice to make them perfect, but waaaaaaay up on the cathedral no one can see the details you sweated over.

    It doesn't have to be that good to work.

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  6. Republicans who use Luntz-approved talking points do not intend to do anything at all on health care policy. They'll use phrases like "patient-centered healthcare" to appeal to moderates and alienated Democrats. Those voters may not end up voting for Romney, but a few soothing "compassionate" words may be all it takes to convince these folks to stay home in November, figuring that the candidates aren't too different.

    The idea is to get elected - period. Once you're in office you can worry about how to maintain your coalition. (If memory serves, George W. Bush had a few tricks up his sleeve to serve that purpose; think war, tax cuts, pharmaceutical giveaways...)

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  7. JB, I think you overlook a fundamental GOP problem here. Back in 1993-94, when Clinton was trying to promote health-care reform, the Republicans did in fact come up with a substantive alternative policy. As soon as the Clinton proposal was dead, they dropped it like a hot potato, but the cat was out of the bag. Twenty years later, someone went and implemented it! Now, how can you ask them to take a risk like that again?

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  8. Also don't forget that Lunz makes a lot of dough coming up with bunk like this and selling it to GOP politicians, so I'm sure he pitches like grampa simpson selling his love tonic.

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  9. Patient-centered is a focus of the ACA with the Patient-centered outcomes research trust fund.

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  10. I just read about a study where Doctors were paid to give speek about the benefits of a drug. Before, they many not have felt the drug in question was of much value. But after talking it up, their opinions re-arranged.

    In Republican politics, it's not what they do, but what they say that matters. Clear Skies didn't result in cleaner air, Healthy Forests in healthier forests. Tax cuts didn't stimulate the economy. The government didn't get smaller under their watch. But when the speak these catchy, poll-tested phrases, their conviction in them grows.

    It's not what they do, it's what they say that matters, at least short-term; and since they say it loud and often, they grow to believe it; they can say it with deep conviction.

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  11. It's a funny choice, since Patient-Centered Medical Homes does mean something - and that something is set to expand dramatically under the PPACA.

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