How the phrase public option undermined health care reform.

Scrutinizing culture.
Oct. 13 2009 1:58 PM

Worst Framing Device Ever

How the misbegotten phrase public option has undermined health care reform.

Blah. Blah. Pubic Option.

In the history of political euphemisms, has there ever been a more empty, vacuous, mystifying, or counterproductive phrase than public option? It's the bastard child of inbred wonk culture and fashionable "framing" theory. The product of people who talk mainly to one another (the wonks) and the people who invent ways for the wonks to talk down to other people (the framers).

Contemporary framing theory is traceable to UC-Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff, who has persuaded many Democrats that their problem is not their policies but the words they use to describe them. Its popularity is a symptom of the way marketing culture has transformed politics to the point where Democrats abandon actually defending the substance of their principles and instead attempt to devise rhetorical tricks that reek of focus grouping to sell them.

Framing theory made its debut as a meme after John Kerry's '04 loss as a rationale to explain the election's surprising (to Democrats) result. As rationales go, this one was both simple-minded and disingenuous. It treated ordinary people outside DuPont Circle as linguistically manipulable sheep who would fall for any clever framing device because they're too stupid to see how they're being condescended to. It was reducible to a snide doctrine: "We must reach out to the rubes."

And thus—voila!—we find ourselves graced with public option. An obfuscating, near-meaningless, certainly contentless, two-word phrase that has done more damage to the fate of meaningful health care reform than its reviled two-word counter-framing rival, death panels.

Let me stipulate at the outset that I am someone who favors some version of the provision the all-too-clever wonkish framers—followed by journalists and bloggers—have insisted on saddling with the terminally inscrutable name public option. And I think polls show that a majority of the American people favor it when the concept has been explained without the use of that idiot euphemism. (Consider my colleague Mickey Kaus' analysis of the language used in polling the issue. When the Times/CBS pollsters described it, fairly accurately, as "a government administered health insurance plan—something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and older can buy," it got nearly two-thirds support. Note no use of public option.)

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But most polls show that Americans are evenly divided on or opposed to Obama's overall health care plan, of which the public option is, or was, the heart. And a Times poll of Sept. 24 shows that a 55 percent majority believes the White House has failed to explain its health care reforms adequately.

Fifty-five percent, many of whom would be in favor if the reforms were presented to them in plain language and who would be putting pressure on their reps to pass it. Imagine if health care proponents had explained it clearly in the beginning!

As Jill Abramson, managing editor of the New York Times put it this week in an interview with the paper's public editor: "If people had understood it more, would the politics have turned out differently? … I don't know."

She's being kind. Even if you believe in the virtues of framing, public option has to be the worst failure in framing history. It's hard to fathom the blind insistence of pro-Obama health care types on robotically repeating public option without further explanation over and over and over again, as if repeating something inexplicable makes it more understandable. Journalists and bloggers are part of the problem, accepting the meaningless phrase they were handfed by the wonkish famers as if it were more important to show you've earned your Wonk Club Merit Badge than to attempt to clearly explain an essential element of reform.

My colleague Timothy Noah says he's "baffled" by the disconnect between the public's support for the substance of this aspect of Obamacare and the lack of any feeling of a groundswell of support that will push some version of it through Congress.

Like it or hate it, death panels was brilliant propaganda; the phrase aroused passion. It may have been misleading (if you took it literally) but at least it led somewhere. Public option leads nowhere.

I've argued that the phrase death panels was really a clever, black-humored, Lenny Bruce-type satiric hyperbole (something liberals couldn't conceive that Sarah Palin might be capable of—or even capable of hiring someone else to come up with). It's a framing device that nonetheless provoked an important debate on the real issue of "rationing" care. (See Joe Conason's shrewd response, which was to say, essentially, Yeah there are death panels, people rationing care, already! They're just being run by profit-minded private health-insurance companies.)