Thursday, April 1, 2010

Words, Words, Words

I absolutely love this Kevin Drum post, in which he throws cold water on Andy Sabl's suggestions for how Dems should talk about the individual mandate.  Drum concludes:
Am I being too gloomy here? It just seems like these attempts at precision framing don't usually survive contact with the real world. Comments?
Comments?  Exactly right, I think. It's fun to think of clever ways of  selling one's policies, but in the real world it's not bound to do much good.  Oh, both sides should try; as long as you don't believe your own propaganda, there's nothing wrong with a good attempt at spinning something.  But spin rarely works in the real world, because it doesn't fit the way people evaluate policies.  Spin has to compete with two far more powerful things -- partisanship, and to a lesser extent actual personal experience.  Basically, most politically attentive Americans are going to support or oppose health care reform (or most other policies) based on prior partisan attitudes.  Republicans are going to oppose it, because Republican elites oppose it; Democrats are going to support it, because Barack Obama supports it.  In some cases, however, personal experience may override that...I expect seniors will like having the donut hole filled in, for example. 

What spin, and framing, can do is to change polling results -- it's no doubt true that Sabl's formulation ("government will get you insurance if your employed won't") will poll better than "government forces you to buy insurance whether you want to or not."  Frank Luntz has made a career out of finding clever wording that will yield terrific poll results.  The problem is that if its not attached to any underlying beliefs, or subsequent actions, then what's the point?  And there is a danger of, as I said, believing your own spin, and forgetting which of your policies are popular and which are not.  For the Democrats and health care reform, it's just going to be the case that mandating that young healthies buy insurance is not apt to be popular; Democrats can improve that situation by having larger subsidies, but they can't really change it by spinning it (Drum's point, that the other side can spin right back, is also important here).  The best bet for Dems is to focus on the portions of health care reform that are popular, not to try to fight on the other side's turf.  Although the real best bet for the Democrats is to implement the policy well, so that there are as few as possible actual negative effects as possible.


  1. Yeah, generally you can spin process but you can't really spin policy. And Sabl's frame is like giving someone a bowl of spinach and telling him it's ice cream: the one person in a hundred who actually believes you is only that much more infuriated after that first mouthful.

  2. Jonathan, what's your take on framing of the George Lakoff/ cognitive linguistics type? I think part of the reason for Luntz's success is that he's good at tapping deeper level associations (primal fears, if we're being unkind) at the level of mental frames.

    Are frames just a corollary to partisanship (or vice versa?)? As someone who thinks about messaging for nonprofit organizations as my day job, It does seems to me that much spin isn't really that effective. But when it finds a way to connect with things people already believe on a deep level (often without even being able to articulate why) it has the potential to be transformative of attitudes about policy.

  3. I think you are giving spin short shrift here. Actually, if you look at it as just "spin" yeah its meaningless, but if you look at it as "making a case" then its important.

    Take the individual mandate. Some people I've talked to are totally against it until you use Mitt Romney's argument, which goes something like "people without insurance or money expect to go to the emergency room and have the government pay for them. We have to have personal responsibility in the health care system." Once you say that, in my experience, people think it makes sense.

    And I don't know why the dems aren't using Mitt Romney's spin on this subject. Actually the dems messaging always mystifies me, its their biggest problem.

  4. I would say it has to be 100% partisanship and 0% personal experience. If people's voting patterns and policy evaluations were based on personal experience, the Republicans would be relegated to 20% minorities in the House and Senate and would never win another Presidential election. Ever.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Grrr... sorry about the triple post. Blogspot errors.

  7. "people without insurance or money expect to go to the emergency room and have the government pay for them. We have to have personal responsibility in the health care system."

    This is powerful stuff, and it works. Most spin and framing is weak tea and so it is easy to mock people like Lakoff, but hard-edged conservatives really do have a thing about lazy irresponsible poor people, and arguments like this throw them off.

    There are more:

    "Why don't we let people drive without insurance? Because it is free-loading on responsible people."

    "Responsible people already have health insurance. The mandate requires everyone to at least pay something."

    "Right now the poor get emergency care and Medicaid for free. Don't we need to send the message that nothing is free?"

    Democrats cannot use such raw wording, but they can strike the same chords. Democrats are best off not bringing up the mandate, but when a Republican brings it up fight back hard:

    "John Republican thinks taxpayers should pay for emergency care for the uninsured, but he opposes requiring everyone to pay at least something for health care. That is wrong. I believe in personal responsibility, and that means everyone has to contribute to their health care costs."

    That puts John Republican in a bind. What is he going to do, let people die in the street?


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