There’s an age-old adage that states, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” As it is in life, so it is in politics.
A political entity’s ability to measure and influence public opinion plays a significant role in its ability to further its agenda. Messaging is the vehicle through which political interests communicate with the public, express direction and shape public opinion.
Over the past 20 years or so, conservatives have been much more adept than liberals through the Democratic and Green parties at crafting their message, developing “talking points” for their spokespeople and staying on message. Despite recent losses in the mid-term and presidential elections, conservatives have been very successful in controlling the public discourse on issues such as health care reform, the war on terrorism, and gun control.
One of the tactics that has proven successful for conservative interests is the use of crafted political talk. Crafted political talk allows political groups to move away from the center of the debate and cater to the more extreme views of their base while appearing to remain in the center. During the 2000 presidential election, Republican pollster Frank Luntz used focus groups to get a sense of the types of language that would allow conservatives to package and camouflage policies favorable to their base, but presented those policies in a manner that would make them more attractive to mainstream voters.
Through the use of crafted political talk, “school vouchers” became “school choice,” “global warming” became “climate change,” and the “partial privatization of Social Security” became “personal accounts” and “retirement choice”. Truth and accuracy in the statements were not nearly as important as accomplishing the desired result of promoting an agenda or passing legislation.
Democrats have failed to learn from this and have lost control of the health care reform debate. In spite of polls showing that 85 percent of respondents agreed that the health care system needed to be fundamentally changed or completely rebuilt and only 14 percent opposed creating a new public health insurance plan that anyone can purchase, recent Rasmussen polls indicate that only 42 percent of Americans the healthcare reform plan spearheaded by President Obama and the Democratic Party. A record 53 percent of Americans are now opposed to the plan.
What is at the heart of this disconnect? How is the Obama administration’s message and health care reform plan seemingly so out of sync with the public?
The White House entered into the discussion with a great idea but no real specifics on how the plan would work. A plan devoid of specifics left the door wide open for the opposition to control the message with crafted political talk based on misinformation, lies, and distortions. The opponents of health care reform have been able to change the debate into a forum on health care for illegal immigrants, abortion, and other wedge issues.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin forced the White House off message by calling President Barack Obama’s health plan “downright evil”. On her Facebook page, she posted that he would create a “death panel” that would deny care to the neediest Americans. Even though these assertions are untrue, Palin was able to change the focus of the debate during enough news cycles to put the White House on the defensive. She galvanized the opposition.
Having lost control of its message, the White House is now losing control of the debate. The Republican opposition has put enough pressure on the White House that President Obama has signaled a willingness to abandon the idea of the “public option” or the government-run component of health care reform. This admission is causing great debate within the president’s own camp since the “public option” was considered by many to be corner stone of reform.
Having lost control of the message, the president’s health care reform initiative is now on life support.