The success of health reform creates momentum for Democrats that is almost certain to help advocates of climate change legislation.

So begins the EnergyGuardian story (subs. req’d) by reporter and Fox News contributor Jeffrey Birnbaum.  Similarly, BusinessGreen reports:

The chances of US climate change legislation passing this year received a major boost after President Obama secured victory in his historic battle to pass healthcare reforms late last night.

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Certainly, failure on the healthcare security bill would have been bad news for Obama’s entire agenda.  And if progressives can pass a mono-partisan health security bill that isn’t popular with the public, passing a bipartisan job-creating climate and energy security bill that is quite popular with the public should be a no-brainer.  Should be.

I know what you’re thinking — what the heck is this “healthcare security bill”?  Everybody else calls it “healthcare reform.”  And that’s the problem — another example of dreadful progressive messaging, which I touched on back in September [see “Can Obama deliver health and energy security with a half (assed) message?“].

Having sat through the House debate on CSPAN on the healthcare security bill yesterday — where Democrats repeated the phrase “healthcare reform” dozens and dozens of times, thereby missing a real messaging opportunity –  let me revise and extend my remarks from September.

No serious messaging strategy can possibly be built around the phrase “healthcare reform.”  Why?  First, “reform” is a process, not an outcome.  No one serious about moving public opinion talks about process over and over again.  They talk about the benefits that reform brings, outcomes the public cares about.  Second, most of the public likes their healthcare, so the phrase “healthcare reform” is not intrinsically positive and, in fact, is probably negative for much of the public given the more effective conservative messaging.

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If you spend half your scarce messaging time talking about “healthcare reform,” while your opponent spends all of their time messaging on negative outcomes that the public worries about, you are fighting with one hand tied behind your back.

Here a quiz:

1)  What’s worse from a messaging perspective, “the public option” or “cap-and-trade”?  Hint:  Both are process.

2)  Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says is the benefit of passing a health care reform bill.

3)  Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says happens if we fail to pass the climate and clean energy bill.

On health care, no simple, repeated core message exists, so the whole effort is a muddle.

Like the 99% of people who aren’t expert on health care reform, only very recently — 12 months too late — have I begun to develop a clear idea of what this plan is or what it would actually do.  The problem is, many if not most people could probably care less about the uninsured — they just don’t want to join that group — and while people may say they want cost containment, in fact they don’t want their own costs “contained,” they only want their premiums lower.  They do want security about their healthcare.

Again, the single phrase that the Democrats repeat most often is “healthcare reform” whereas the single phrase that Republicans repeat most often is “government takeover.”  Is it any surprise the polling on this bill is so bad?

As Frank Luntz — the bane of climate progressives (see Bush climate speech follows Luntz playbook: “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah.“) but an undeniably astute conservative messaging guru — has said:

There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.


A vote for this bill is a vote for healthcare security.  You get to keep your healthcare coverage if you like what you have — and they can’t throw you off of it if you get some expensive disease or get fired.  And you get access to health care coverage if you don’t have it, and they can’t keep it away from you if you have a pre-existing condition.  And this bill keeps whatever healthcare you have or get affordable, so you don’t have to compromise your health to pay for other necessities.

Healthcare security. Healthcare security. Healthcare security.

On climate, at least we have the simple positive message:  clean energy jobs, jobs, jobs.  Plus energy independence/security.  That is a key reason public support has held firm even in the face of a multimillion dollar campaign of fraud and disinformation by the fossil-fuel-funded right wing:

Normally, however, a winning campaign has four messages, as I discussed in this 2008 post, “Can Obama win with half a messaging strategy?

Let me repeat what I consider to be Messaging 101, which apparently has been lost again by team Obama and progressive leaders.

As psychologist and Political Brain author Drew Westen explained in Huffington Post during th
e 2008 campaign:

There is a simple fact about elections that has eluded Democrats in every presidential campaign they have lost in the last 40 years: that as a candidate, you have to focus first and foremost not on a litany of “issues” but on four stories: the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this “message grid” win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose.

I’d actually put it a little differently. You need a story about yourself and a story about your opponent. And you need a counterpunch to your opponent’s stories about himself and about you. Ideally, the stories can be boiled down to a catchy slogan (”it’s the economy, stupid”) or one or two words (”compassionate conservative”) that make use of the memorable figures of speech from the 25-century-old art of persuasion aka rhetoric (see “Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1“). Same for the counterpunch (”He was for it before he was against it.”).

The word “story” here is roughly equivalent to two other popular terms — “frame” (as George Lakoff uses the term) or “narrative.”  It is also equivalent to rhetoric’s “extended metaphor,” which I argue is the most important figure of speech in my not-yet-bestselling unpublished manuscript, Politics, Religion, and the English Language (see “How Lincoln framed his picture-perfect Gettysburg Address, 4: Extended metaphor“).

Good candidates will pound away with a strong positive extended metaphor of why you should vote for them and with an equally strong negative extended metaphor of why you should not vote for their opponents. Winning two-term candidates, like President George W. Bush with the help of Karl Rove, will have a counter-punch to their opponent’s positive and negative extended metaphors. The counterpunches always use the same figure of speech — dramatic irony, wherein someone’s words unintentionally mean something quite different from (and often opposite to) what they intended (see “How to be as persuasive as Abe Lincoln, Part 2: Use irony, the twist we can’t resist“).

The goal is to find a powerful dramatic irony in their opponents’ words or deeds that blow up the opposition’s own extended metaphor. That always makes a great story, since it is satisfying sport for people to be hoist with their own petard or for people to be uncovered as a hypocrite.

Think Michael Dukakis in an army tank, or President Bush on the aircraft carrier with the “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background, or the Swift Boat ads run against John Kerry. Dramatic irony is the key to understanding both popular culture and politics — but that is another post.

What conservatives have figured out is that since the media doesn’t really police the truth in a meaningful fashion, you can pretty much take whatever your opponent says out of context and turn that into a defining dramatic irony. Or just make stuff up entirely.

The other point of having the four stories or frames or extended metaphors is that it makes responding to attacks very easy. If you know your messages, then whenever the other side launches a phony attack, you just frame the response with one of your narratives.

Of course, if your opponent has no positive plan, which is true in both the health care debate and climate change (and mostly true on energy), then your messaging job should be easier — but only if you are willing to be very blunt about what happens if we do nothing.  In the case of global warming, of course, many people on our side have been duped by dubious polling and focus groups and dial groups into polling their punches on the climate science message (see “Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ — and that’s a good thing” and Mark Mellman must read on climate messaging: “A strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action” — ecoAmerica “could hardly be more wrong”).

Ironically, many progressives don’t even know how strong the polling remains for the clean air, clean energy jobs bill that increases energy independence while preserving a livable climate.

But the healthcare debate does show that even half-assed messaging — with conviction — coupled with an intense political effort can deliver legislation when progressives have large majorities.  Now Obama needs devote as much effort to climate and clean energy as he has to healthcare.  If he can’t pass a more popular bill that already has bipartisan support — and which is more important to the health and well-being of future Americans — then his tremendous healthcare success will not save his presidency from being judged a failure.

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