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Public option

How not to sell healthcare

There is an interesting piece of “framing” analysis at Slate, where Ron Rosenbaum righteously and entertainingly assaults the rhetorical pratfall that is the phrase public option as a description for Obama’s healthcare plan:

In the history of political euphemisms, has there ever been a more empty, vacuous, mystifying, or counterproductive phrase than public option? […] An obfuscating, near-meaningless, certainly contentless, two-word phrase that has done more damage to the fate of meaningful health care reform than its reviled two-word counter-framing rival, death panels.

I don’t think he really means it is a “euphemism”, since he appears to think the healthcare plan thus named is actually a good thing; but anyway, Rosenbaum goes on to denounce the formula public option as “terminally inscrutable”, “vapid”, and “empty of substance”, “useless, sterile and self-defeating” — though perhaps this insistence on the phrase’s supposed vacuity is somewhat misguided. He proceeds, after all, to examine the content, arguing that public is too obviously a “euphemism” for “government” and so strikes an “evasive false note”. Meanwhile, of option, he writes:

A word that carries no weight at all, no signification, no additive value, no connection to health, illness, affordability, competitiveness, any of the virtues that they could have highlighted in a two-word phrase they planned to use to build support for their policy.

(Again with the “no signification”? The trouble with language is, rather, that it always has a signification.) Rosenbaum then mentions a correspondent’s view that “option might have been a substitute for choice—choice being too much of a hot-button word, since it potentially brings abortion rights into the equation”. That is getting closer, I think. More importantly, though, doesn’t option also bring into the equation the weak, vacillating sense of “optional”? Oh, you know, it’s just an option. You don’t have to have it. All right then, we won’t!

Returning finally to public — I think that choice of word might just represent a perfect example of rhetorical blowback. Presumably the Obamaites hoped to appeal to notions of patriotism and democracy with the word “public”, but perhaps the problem is that, to many American ears, public describes a system that is shonky and underfunded?

  1. 1  Alex Higgins  October 14, 2009, 6:35 pm 

    Rosenbaum has a real go at it, but I’m not sure he’s made his point.

    Is there any evidence that people are alienated by the term ‘public option’? A large majority of Americans still favour it, and were ultimately unmoved by the summer of death panels and the socialistLatinanegrogovernmentcommieNazideath plugpulling framing.

    The public option is an insurance plan. It’s not private. And it’s an option. It’s more obvious what it means if you say ‘public insurance option’ but I can’t help notice that Rosenbaum is struggling for good 2-word alternatives. Anyone got any ideas?

    It also misses the point more generally, I think. Rosenbaum seems to think the Obama White House is the principle advocate of the public option, and that the PO and ‘Obamacare’ are the same thing, which they aren’t. The difficulty for liberals in getting public option legislation through isn’t public opinion but the overt prostitution of the US senate and the sneaky affair the White House is having with the insurance sector on the side.

    ‘Single-payer healthcare’ on the other hand, as the wonk term for national health insurance that would completely displace private insurance, is genuinely rubbish.

  2. 2  Steven  October 14, 2009, 9:56 pm 

    I can’t help notice that Rosenbaum is struggling for good 2-word alternatives. Anyone got any ideas?

    Evidently not! But I agree it’s difficult. “Universal healthcare”, for one, sounds like you want to offer aspirin and warm baths to the Cylons?

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