Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Live By Words, Die By Words (But What About Deeds?). The Liberal-Left Linguistic Industrial Complex Comes Crashing Down.

So how did Obamacare end up in this much trouble? How could Republicans, plus some radio talkers and some avid townhall protestors, bring the liberal health juggernaut to a screeching halt--or a Titanic-like end? If it's true that journalists write the first draft of history, then The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman has made a great contribution this morning, taking us behind the scenes, in his news analysis piece, "Obama Allies Find Words Fail Them." Weisman's story is a peek at what we might call the Liberal-Left Linguistic Industrial Complex (LLLIC). The LLLIC, begun with high hopes and at great cost, is now grinding down. As Weisman puts it:

In the rhetorical battle over health care, the forces backing President Barack Obama's overhaul have spent years polling and using focus groups to find the precise language that would win over voters -- an effort that doesn't at the moment appear to be working.

Weisman further notes, "The words had been carefully chosen in an effort to take away the rhetorical targets of health-overhaul foes and replace them with terminology that would bring ordinary Americans on board." OK, from a liberal point of view, so far so good. Having imbibed the lessons of George Lakoff, Drew Westen, et al., the Obamacare forces were ready to fight and win.

So what went wrong? Why is Obamacare in so much trouble? The short answer: The situation changed faster than the Obamans and their carefully chosen words. 'Twas ever thus; as the Prussian military strategist Clausewitz tells us, "No battle plan survives its first contact with combat." When the shooting starts, the fog of war sets in, and an army needs to fall back on doctrine, training, instinct, and luck. Again, the point is not that plans are a bad idea, the point is that plans need to change according to the situation.

And so, as the WSJ notes, the Obamans haven't changed quickly enough. No wonder, because they spent so much time and energy putting it all together. As the Journal notes, the group, which dubbed itself "The Herndon Alliance," included the AARP, the Service Employees International Union, the American Cancer Society, and Families USA, all pitching in to hire high-priced pollsters and consultants. Indeed, as the WSJ notes, the “Herndonians” are so eager to get credit for all their work that they can't resist taking credit, even if the results are, shall we say, less than credit-worthy:

But Herndon members do say they have influenced the lexicon of overhaul advocates."When you've gotten the groups speaking with a similar voice and you've got data to show one phrase works well and one doesn't, that gets into circulation," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA.

Well, that's bad "op sec," operational security. I am willing to bet that most Americans, even those closely following the health care debate, have never heard of The Herndon Alliance--but that could well change today, if maybe Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck get hold of this story.

But the larger problem for the Herndonians is that the weight of all their planning and focus-grouping turned into dead weight for the Obamans. It was literally yesterday's news in a fast-changing environment. And so, as the WSJ explains:

Under steady attack from opponents using more-emotional language, some of the president's allies are rethinking the linguistic strategy. "There are emotions on both sides, and some of these recommendations really avoid connecting to emotion in a way that we hoped would bring the temperature down and disarm opponents," said John Rother, executive vice president for policy and strategy at AARP, the giant seniors lobby. "I don't want to second-guess them, but the research is very much a product of where the debate was at the time. Times have changed. Temperatures have gone up."

Indeed, temperatures have gone up. Writing about the thinking of Herndon's strategists, the WSJ observes:

Dr. Crittenden said no one anticipated the charges that the Obama program would include "death panels" or advocate euthanasia. Perhaps more important, said Lake Research head Celinda Lake, no one foresaw the intensity of protests at town-hall meetings.

Famous last words for any bold plan. "No one anticipated." And where did "death panels" come from?

If Sarah Palin had totally made up the line about "death panels," if the entire discussion of euthanasia were a complete fabrication, then it's likely that the anti-Obamacare forces would have been hooted off the stage. But instead, they are winning.

As the University of Pennsylvania's Mary Frances Berry, no conservative she, observed in Politico’s “Arena” section yesterday:

The discussion of end of life consultations, and savings in Medicare and other cost- savings proposals apparently seem scary all taken together. Some people even report experiences with older relatives, who are in nursing homes or assisted living facilities being counseled to make an end of life decision and to sign a form they might not understand.

In fact, there is a strong factual basis in reality for many of the anti-Obamacare accusations, working right there in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. Many of the words come from Ezekiel Emanuel, Obama health care adviser (and brother of the White House chief of staff). Responding to his burgeoning legion of critics, Ezekiel Emanuel tells The New York Times:

Maybe if I had been a smarter, more careful thinker about how people could interpret it, I would have qualified it and condemned it more robustly. In my 1.2, 1.3 million written words, you can’t find another sentence that even comes close to advocating that in my voice. When I advocate, I’m not shy.”

Well, there you have it. The Herndon Alliance has its words, all expensively worked and reworked. And Emanuel has his million-plus words. And, as he says, he is "not shy" about what he writes and advocates. In a Googled world, of course, it's just as easy to find Emanuel's words as it is to find the Herndon Alliance’s. And so here we are: A mostly defiant Emanuel and his long, long, long paper trail are an opposition researcher's dream.

Indeed, even the Times allows that Emanuel's writings might be a just a little bit controversial:

As a leading bioethicist at Harvard and at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Emanuel had a reputation for pushing limits while exploring uncomfortable life-and-death issues in starkly academic terms.

It was great that the Democrats had their expensive plan. But they needed the ability to change it.

And, of course, they needed a better plan, a plan that was more than just words.

The Liberal-Left Linguistic Industrial Complex is a poor substitute for Serious Medicine.


  1. Jim,
    I so appreciate the work you are doing in keeping the focus on Serious Medicine!
    Focus groups and polls are pretty much useless as can be inferred from the analyses you and Jonathan Weisman provide today. Words are powerful and, unfortunately, used all too frequently to manipulate -- by both "sides."
    Thanks again for this blog!

  2. Jim,

    I posted a link to this at C4P (they'll appreciate the shout-out to Sarah, ha ha)

  3. I posted the link at http://www.conservatives4palin.com/2009/08/palin-wins-one-for-gipper.html @ 8:27pm Aug 25

  4. Thank you for bringing up the conscious word choices that are beng (and always have been made) by politicians. At least in Ancient Rome children were taught rhetoric in school so they could be informed listeners. Most Americans don't listen to "We do not promote..." and hear "We're not going to forbid... but we're not going to say that we allow..."