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Democrats Seek Right Message To Boost Health Law

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Democrats Seek Right Message To Boost Health Law

Health Care

Democrats Seek Right Message To Boost Health Law

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

The House of Representatives returns to legislating this week. The House took a self-imposed timeout after the shooting rampage in Tucson in which six were killed and 13 injured, among them Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

First on the agenda is one of the most divisive bills of the session: a measure to repeal last year's health care overhaul. It's unclear how much the tenor of the debate will change in the aftermath of the shootings. One thing that is clear, as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, is that Democrats, now playing defense on the health law, are finally coalescing around a single message.

JULIE ROVNER: For Republicans, the message about the new health care law has been simple: It's bad. Here's House Speaker John Boehner at a news conference.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): It will ruin the best health care system in the world, it will bankrupt our nation, and it will ruin our economy.

ROVNER: And here's House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier.

Representative DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): The words reckless and unsustainable hardly begin to cover it. This bill is an economic and fiscal disaster of unprecedented proportions.

ROVNER: In fact, the bill they'll vote on this week is called the Repealing the Job-killing Health Care Law Act.

Democrats, on the other hand, have had a much more difficult job selling the merits of the law. They've had to explain why the bill is good and what's actually in it. That's led lawmakers to resort to reciting lengthy laundry lists of provisions. Those have often done more to confuse than to enthuse the public.

George Lakoff is a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He says President Obama missed a big opportunity during the height of the debate. After a month of controversial town hall meetings around the country, the president gave a nationally-televised speech to try to reframe the health care bill. But Lakoff says instead of casting the effort as a moral imperative...

Professor GEORGE LAKOFF (Linguistics Professor, University of California Berkeley): ...he gave a speech on 24 points of policy.

ROVNER: And that's the big difference between the two parties when it comes to messaging.

Mr. LAKOFF: The conservatives create moral messages. The Democrats create policy messages. And policy messages either go over people's heads or bore them.

ROVNER: Lakoff says he's doesn't think Democrats are doing much better these days, but Bob Crittenden disagrees. Crittenden runs the Herndon Alliance, which has helped shape the message for dozens of groups that support the health law.

Mr. BOB CRITTENDEN (Herndon Alliance): There's a lot of interest in being very focused and disciplined about how we're going to talk to the American people.

ROVNER: Crittenden helped write a series of recommendations last summer to help backers of the law sell it to the public. A key one was to make it less complicated.

Mr. CRITTENDEN: Put the provisions of the health care bill into personal terms, through stories and real things or of how it really affects people.

ROVNER: And it seems like lawmakers are taking that advice. For example, Florida Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has taken to telling this story about one grateful constituent.

Representative DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (Democrat, Florida): Recently I was in the grocery store, and a woman came up to me and literally put her hands on my shoulders and said: Debbie, thank you. Thank you for passing health care reform. You saved me $3,000 last year when I was able to put my two adult daughters back on my insurance plan.

ROVNER: Crittenden's group said backers of the law should also focus on parts of the law that have already gone into effect. That includes things like letting young adults get back on their parents' health plans, giving seniors bigger discounts on prescription drugs and giving small businesses tax credits if they offer health insurance to their workers.

Mr. CRITTENDEN: They're a very small part of the bill but crucial, and also, the American people love those things.

ROVNER: Lawmakers seem to be taking that advice, too. Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey highlighted what would happen to seniors' new drug benefits if Republicans succeed in repealing the law.

Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): GOP used to stand for Grand Old Party. Now it stands for Grandma's out of Prescriptions.

ROVNER: The Republican repeal bill is expected to pass the House easily but die in the Senate. Meanwhile, the messaging battle is likely to continue unabated.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington

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