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OP-ED | Message-maven Culture Killing Compromise In Washington

by Wendell Potter | Aug 8, 2014 11:30am
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Posted to: Economics, Health Care, Insurance, Opinion, Health Care Opinion, Reprinted with permission from the Center for Public Integrity

Public Relations Techniques Rule As Dialogue Gives Way To Talking Points

Former congressional staffer Scott Lilly, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, testified at a hearing on Capitol Hill in July that lawmakers might be able to reach a bipartisan consensus on how to improve the congressional budget process if Washington were not ruled by public relations people and message mavens.

Lilly, who served as clerk and staff director of the House Appropriations Committee before moving to the liberal-leaning think tank, suggested to lawmakers, who are considering a move from an annual to a biennial budget, that the “biggest failing of the current process is that it has truly failed to inform our citizenry as to why the federal budget is growing at such a rapid pace.”

In a commentary shortly after his testimony, Lilly added that, “The current Congressional budget process is too elaborate, too time consuming and worse off controlled by message makers instead of legislators.” (Emphasis added.)

Lilly’s words could have applied to every other issue members of Congress take up, especially health care. Had message-makers not been in control of the debate over health care reform from the get-go, our citizenry would not be so ill informed about “Obamacare.” Even that word itself was coined by message-makers for no reason other than to persuade us to think a certain way about the Affordable Care Act and to vote against any politician who supported it.

Obama had not been in office more than four months when pre-eminent pollster and message-maker Frank Luntz sent Republican politicians and operatives a 28-page document entitled, “The Language of Healthcare 2009: The 10 Rules for Stopping the ‘Washington Takeover’ of Healthcare.”

This was not a policy paper. There was hardly a word about what Republicans should do to improve the U.S. health care system. It was a PR strategy for how Republicans could capitalize by using emotion-laden words and phrases to condemn anything the Democrats came up with. Keep in mind that congressional leaders and the White House were still in the process of exploring options for legislation at the time. Actual bills that Congress would ultimately vote for or against would not materialize for many months.

“This document is based on polling results and Instant Response dial sessions conducted in April 2009,” Luntz wrote. “It captures not just what Americans want to see but exactly what they want to hear. The Words That Work boxes that follow are already being used by a few Congressional and Senatorial Republicans. From today forward they should be used by everyone.”

And they were. Especially the phrases “Washington takeover” and its cousin “government takeover of health care.” They were used repeatedly even though the legislation that was enacted was based in large part on Republican proposals from earlier years.

While message-makers have plied their trade for decades to influence public policy and to help candidates win elections, I can remember a time not so long ago when bipartisanship, civil debate, and compromise were possible not only in Washington but also in the state capitals.

As a young reporter, I covered politics in Tennessee when Republican Winfield Dunn was governor and Democrats controlled both the state Senate and House of Representatives. Dunn, and later Republican Gov. and now Sen. Lamar Alexander, who also served while Democrats controlled both houses, had to reach across the political aisle to get any of their policy initiatives enacted. They both succeeded by doing exactly that.

Later I covered Congress and the White House when Jimmy Carter was president, Democrat Tip O’Neill was House Speaker and Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee was Senate Minority Leader. Baker, who died last month, was a true moderate and a master at brokering compromises and getting legislation enacted. He was proud to be called “The Great Conciliator.”

Fast forward to today. Thanks to the rule of message makers, the term “moderate” and “compromise” have become descriptors Republican candidates seeking re-election fear most.

Alexander, who is running for a third term, bears little resemblance to the man who governed Tennessee in a bipartisan fashion and who was first elected to the Senate as a moderate in 2002.

Because he is facing a primary challenge from the right — Sarah Palin just last week endorsed his opponent, state Rep. Joe Carr — Alexander is trying to persuade Tennessee GOP voters that, despite allegations to the contrary, he’s a dyed-in-the wool conservative.

Undoubtedly following the advice of message-makers, he of course is running against Obamacare — and stooping to misinform the citizens of Tennessee about the law — to burnish his conservative bona fides. The Washington Post’s fact check column awarded him “two Pinocchios” earlier this month for misleading folks with his fuzzy math and suggesting that health insurance premiums have risen 50 percent since the law went into effect. The truth is that hundreds of thousands of his constituents now have health insurance they can afford, thanks in part to subsidies made available by “Obamacare,” and that many of them couldn’t buy coverage at any price prior to the law because of pre-existing conditions.

Politicians have misled voters for as long as there have been politicians. At times, though, and not so long ago, it was not a death wish to claim to be a moderate willing to work with members of the other party. That’s hardly possible when message makers call the shots.

Former CIGNA executive-turned-whistleblower Wendell Potter is writing about the health care industry and the ongoing battle for health reform for the Center for Public Integrity.

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