Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Messaging a Law the American People Don’t Want

Speaking on the floor a little bit ago, Senator Kerry claimed that “very effective negative branding” has contributed to the American people’s dislike of Obamacare:

We’ve got to stand up and make it clear to people why this [law] is good.  A lot of Americans have not heard enough about how this legislation works for them, works for the country, will improve our system….I think the Administration has a much better story to tell about it than has been told.  And I’m glad the President has said he looks forward to going out and talking to the country about it, because I believe that as the country learns more about it, in fact, they will say, wow, that makes sense, that seems like a pretty sensible thing to do.

The remarks echo similar comments made yesterday by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who said that the problem with the 2700-page bill was not the legislation itself, but the messaging of same: “All of us who are supporters of the legislation should have done a better job of explaining its benefits, and we need to continue to make very clear what the benefits of [Obamacare] are.”

This tack of trying to explain away Obamacare’s unpopularity is perhaps unsurprising.  Implicit in the idea that Democrats need to do a better job explaining the legislation is that the American people need to do a better job of understanding said explanations.  And because said legislation is based upon a paternalistic premise – namely, that all individuals must be forced by their government to buy a product created and defined by a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital – it’s unsurprising that such paternalism would also creep into Democrats’ rationalizations for why the law is unpopular:  Because, they claim, the American people don’t understand it well enough.

That said, it’s interesting how strongly – and consistently – Members of Congress who are retiring, or who have been retired, disagree with the premise that Obamacare’s unpopularity is strictly a messaging problem.  Here are some quotes from an article in The Hill from last month:

Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC): “I think we would all have been better off — President Obama politically, Democrats in Congress politically, and the nation would have been better off — if we had dealt first with the financial system and the other related economic issues and then come back to healthcare.”

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA): Obamacare should have been done “in digestible pieces that the American public could understand and that we could implement.”

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA): “I think we paid a terrible price for healthcare….I would not have pushed it as hard. As a matter of fact, after [Sen.] Scott Brown [R-Mass.] won [in January 2010], I suggested going back. I would have started with financial reform, but certainly not healthcare.”

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA): “I’ll be real frank here…I think that the manner in which the health-care reform issue was put in front of the Congress, the way that the issue was dealt with by the White House, cost Obama a lot of credibility as a leader.”

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA):
“It [Obamacare] did hurt us, there’s no doubt about it. The climate out there was really ugly because of it.”

Former Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL):I think [Obamacare] is the single least popular piece of major domestic legislation in the last 70 years. It was not popular when it passed; it’s less popular now….I think the worst thing that could happen to Barack Obama’s reelection campaign would be if he had to spend four months this fall explaining what ObamaCare 2 would look like.”

The piece de resistance however, might be a quote from now-former Senator Russ Feingold: “I knew the minute I voted for [Obamacare] that that was it.”

Democrats can claim all they want that the problem with Obamacare is the messaging, but the message Senator Feingold said he received from the American people is – or should be anyway – too big to ignore.