Health Care Debate So Far: A War Of Words

It's showtime this week for overhauling health care. President Obama kicked things off Monday at the American Medical Association in Chicago. On Capitol Hill, two committees are expected to release at least part of their health care proposals this week, while another panel begins refining its plan Wednesday.

In the absence of details, what's dominated congressional debate over health care so far is rhetoric.

Everyone in the health care debate agrees that the biggest dispute focuses on two words: public option. That's the term Democrats have chosen for a yet-to-be-devised, publicly funded insurance program they would like to compete with private insurance plans.

"The public option is not your enemy; it is your friend, I believe," Obama said at the AMA convention Monday. The phrase has been used by Majority Leader Harry Reid on the Senate floor ("It's right there in the name: It's a public option.") and by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ("There is strong support for a public option right from the start.").

Republicans, however, refuse to use the word "public" when they talk about what Democrats are proposing. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas says jokingly that Republicans who slip up face consequences.

"You get a fine that you have to put in the jar on the table if you say 'public plan,' instead of 'government plan,' " he says.

But for many Republicans, it's more than just a "government plan." For Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, it's a "Washington takeover."

"A Washington takeover of health care would result in a stifling of innovation," he says.

Same goes for Tennessee's Lamar Alexander, who's in charge of crafting Senate Republicans' message: "I think the one thing we don't want most is a Washington takeover."

And neither do most Americans, according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: "What they don't want is a Washington takeover of health care along the lines with what we've already seen with banks, insurance companies and the auto industry."

Getting The Memo

Two months ago, GOP lawmakers got a 28-page memo from pollster and political strategist Frank Luntz titled "The Language of Healthcare 2009." It lays out what Luntz calls "10 rules for stopping the 'Washington takeover' of healthcare."

Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, says it's clear where Republicans got their talking points. "As we listen to the speeches of Sen. McConnell day in and day out, they're right out of the playbook, almost verbatim — in fact, many cases they are verbatim from the Luntz memo."

Senate GOP message chief Alexander didn't hesitate to confirm that his party did get the memo.

"Well, Frank met with our Republican senators one time, and he's a useful wordsmith," he said.

Luntz, who could not be reached for comment, stressed in his memo that senators should tell stories about specific people when they highlight the perils of other countries' government-run health systems.

Last week, McConnell spoke of Canadian Fran Tooley from Kingston, Ontario. "Two years ago, Fran herniated three discs in her back and was told it would take at least a year before she could consult a neurosurgeon about her injury," he said.

Such assertions have put Democrats like Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state on the defensive. She says it's clear why Republicans spend so much time talking about Canada's health system.

"It's simply because they want to protect the status quo," she says. "They want to protect the status quo in our health care system today, so they're out here talking about Canada."

Beyond Rhetoric

Linguistics professor George Lakoff at the University of California, Berkeley says Democrats need to be proactive and say what their plan is. He says that so far in the health care debate, Democrats have largely been responding to Republicans.

"They need to put the Republicans on the defensive, and they need to put the HMOs on the defensive. And they haven't done that," Lakoff says.

But Democrats maintain that it's their job to say what they're for, which is also why some have felt at a disadvantage. Durbin says it's been tough not having a detailed proposal for overhauling health care.

"Of course, when we have a plan it's a lot easier to stand up and defend it," he says.

And with the plans promised this week, the health care debate may soon move beyond mere rhetoric.

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