Luntz and Words: Winning Combo to Return to Indiana

The mission of Columbia Journalism Review is to encourage and stimulate excellence in journalism in the service of a free society. But, like quite a few individual members of the media today, there appears to be a strong — make that overwhelming — liberal lean.

CJR takes pollster and communicator Frank Luntz to task for his role in advising health care reform opponents. Luntz apparently coined "government option," which was less popular than the "public option" terminology preferred by reform supporters. CJR notes that Luntz "has had a long career fashioning language that helps his Republican clients."

Sure, Luntz has been more closely associated with GOP interests, but he’s also angered Republicans with some of his work on environmental language. The bottom line: don’t take shots at Luntz; just credit him for what he brings to the table. An excerpt of the CJR article is below.

We interviewed Luntz for BizVoice magazine in 2008; he was the special guest at the Indiana Chamber’s Legislative Reception/Dinner in 2010 and will return with new information and insights on March 16, 2011. Whether you agree or disagree with his take, you won’t want to miss what he has to say.

Back to the CJR and its unbalanced report:

Word came that Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon had directed his staff to avoid using the phrase “public option” to describe a proposal hotly debated during the health reform debate. That option, proposed by Yale political science professor Jacob Hacker and embraced by some—but not all—of the progressive advocates, would have injected a real element of competition into the insurance industry. 

The public option was not to be. After months of equivocation, the president threw it under the bus in his efforts to placate the insurance industry, the hospitals, and the doctors, who were hardly fans of something that could lower their profits and incomes.

Now we learn that Frank Luntz, the Republican wordsmith extraordinaire, was at work behind the scenes to craft the language that public plan opponents could exploit.

Last year, Campaign Desk pointed out that Luntz was busy selecting the “right” language months before it looked like the public option had legs. In a twenty-eight page document called “The Language of Healthcare 2009” that became public in the spring of that year, Luntz advised making government the bogeyman. He told Republicans to use words like “politicians,” "bureaucrats,” and “Washington” to fight health reform. He suggested that they use the phrase “government takeover” rather than “government run” or “government controlled.” … We advised journalists to describe what the public option would do, rather than just pass along Luntz-tested terminology.

It’s hard to say whether Luntz’s focus group-tested language succeeded in fomenting the dislike for health reform now registered by the pollsters. For months, polls showed that large segments of the public liked the idea of a public option, and still do. 

Here’s What’s Next on Health Care Reform

Congressional floor debate on health care could begin as early as October 13. That’s the goal of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

First, the Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote this week (work resumes on Tuesday) on its version. The only real suspense is whether Republican Olympia Snowe (Maine) will cross over and vote for the measure. At the same time, Reid and other Senate leaders are trying to combine that proposal with elements of the one approved earlier by the House HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) committee.

Despite that HELP proposal, the House is still battling over Medicare reimbursement rates, trying to trim $200 billion from the cost of the bill and the final shape of the public option.

This is becoming the defining issue of the year. Immigration was pushed back early, there doesn’t appear to be the support for EFCA and most are now conceding that cap and trade will have to wait until when, and if, the health care debate is settled.

The drama, particularly when the issue hits the floor, will continue; the results are unknown.

Stop the Insurance Industry Attacks

While many agree that health care reform is necessary, the level of disagreement on the current proposals in Washington is extremely high. Let’s hope that reasonable debate and compromise will lead to a sensible solution.

No matter how that plays out, one aspect that needs to stop is the all-out attack on the insurance industry. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has made insurance companies the primary culprit. "It’s almost immoral what they are doing," Pelosi told reporters, adding, "Of course they’ve been immoral all along in how they have treated the people that they insure. They are the villians. They have been part of the problem in a major way."

President Obama, in discussing the public option for health insurance, said, "We want to keep the insurance industry honest" and that can be done by having a public option that will compete with private insurers.

I understand that many folks don’t like the fact that insurance companies make a profit. Profit in this country, for some unknown reason, has become an evil pursuit. In a recent Fortune magazine ranking of industries, health insurers ranked 35th with a 2.2% profit margin. (The larger numbers cited for earlier in the decade were primarily a result of significant consolidation in the industry).

Let’s face it: Either the employee-based system of using private insurance to provide for our health care needs is a good thing or it’s not. If it’s not, then go to the public plan and be honest with the American people. If it is good, let’s promote an environment that allows insurers the ability to compete and make a profit while holding them accountable to improve administrative efficiencies.

Without the ability to underwrite business, an insurance company can’t make a profit. That ability is what has afforded us the best policy benefits and coverages in the world. It also has resulted in private initiatives between insurers and employers to address some of the system’s runaway costs. Let’s work together to continue to do a better job in that area instead of simply casting blame on insurers.