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A rose by any other name

Christie Pesavento | Monday, November 2, 2009

It has become the latest ploy in the liberal plot to sell their beloved public option to wary Republicans and moderate Democrats, not to mention a skeptical public. Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the latest version of the House bill will contain what she likes to call “the consumer option:”

“I do think that when people think of it as their option, their consumer option. Because public is being misrepresented as being something that’s paid for by taxpayer dollars, which it is not.”

In other words, Democrats in favor of the public … I mean consumer option are hanging their hopes on voters being gullible enough to believe that a simple name change and a few minor compromises will alter the fundamental flaws embedded in the plan.

Sound familiar? Earlier in 2009, a memo released to Pentagon staff members advised that in place of the phrase “Global War on Terror,” they should begin referring to the effort as the “Overseas Contingency Operation.” Perhaps the administration hoped the public would assume that because a new phrase was being used, President Obama had kept his promise to bring the war to an end. Yet seven months later, the president is contemplating another surge in troops, this time in Afghanistan.

Around the same time, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano revealed her preferred method of speaking about terrorism:

“In my speech, although I did not use the word ‘terrorism,’ I referred to ‘man-caused’ disasters. That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”

Yes, a mere “nuance” that attempts to make acts of terrorism seem less, well, terrible. The term “man-caused disasters” makes a terrorist attack sound like an accident, as though faulty engines had caused three planes to crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon rather than a group of Islamic extremists bent on murdering innocent civilians to make a political point.

Indeed both parties are guilty of attempting to sway public opinion with a thesaurus. Frank Luntz, a Republican communications consultant, has made a career out of advising political clients how to sell their message by using more appealing terminology. In an age when 10-second sound bites and late-night comedy shows provide much of the public’s political education, it’s no wonder politicians find it necessary to carefully calculate their every word. Political marketing strategies have become an essential component of both campaigns and governance, and framing the debate through word choice has been shown to be an effective tool in steering the voters’ perceptions of issues.

But there is a very important, though often times subtle, difference between making a message sound attractive and deliberately attempting to mislead the public in order to make unpopular policies more palatable.

An easy way to distinguish between the two methods is timing. When a politician uses a phrase to describe a particular message or policy from the outset, it is likely that the phrase amounts to, at worst, a mere sugarcoating of reality. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” motto during the 2000 election provides a good example of this method. Call it vacuous, but the term does describe a particular political philosophy that seeks to promote societal welfare through traditionally conservative means.

Here is what the Speaker stated during the aforementioned speech in defense of the “consumer option:”

“It lowers costs. It lowers cost. Remember it lowers cost. That’s very important, by tens of billions of dollars, the consumer option lowers cost to the budget and to the taxpayer.”

Wait a second; didn’t she just say that the phrase “public” option is a misnomer because it leads people to believe that the plan will be funded by taxpayer dollars even though it is not? Yet now the “consumer” option is lowering costs “to the budget and to the taxpayer.” How can these costs be lowered to taxpayers if taxpayers are not footing the bill?

What is most disturbing about these figures is that they represent very conservative estimates. To put them into perspective, we can compare the predicted costs of Obamacare to those of a similar entitlement program, like Medicare. In 1967, two years after Medicare became law, House Ways and Means analysts predicted that it would cost only $12 billion in 1990. When 1990 rolled around, federal Medicare spending hit $110 billion. That is almost a $100 billion difference.

Unfortunately, real problems cannot be resolved by changing a name. If it did, then Obama could save a lot of time and money by simply renaming Gitmo “The Super-Fun Torture-Free Happy Day Camp for Detainees.” When a politician attempts to rebrand a policy midway through the debate, remember that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Or in this case, a public option by any other name will be just as disastrous.

Christie Pesavento is a senior who is majoring in political science and
sociology. She can be reached at cpesaven@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.