What's in a Name?

Liberals often complain about the Democrats’ seeming inability to message their ideas with the same consistency and verve as conservatives. It just never seems like the party has the same discipline in its talking points. Congressional Dems' messaging during the health-care reform legislation in 2009 is a case in point. Rather than taking their cues from Republicans (despite the atrocious polices it entailed, naming a bill the PATRIOT Act immediately after 9/11 was a genius tactic), Democrats went for the unmemorably named "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act." It’s not like Democrats are clueless to such tricks—the campaign finance disclosure bill they’ve proposed after Citizens United had the fitting acronym DISCLOSE—they just didn’t bother in this instance. The party soon paid the price, as Republicans called it "Obamacare" and said it was the living symbol of a tyrannical president imposing his socialist visions for the rest of the country.

It was a term Democrats battled to no avail for several years before finally caving to the reality that Republicans had outplayed them. The Obama campaign began lovingly referring to the bill as Obamacare last month. “Hell yeah, I’m for Obamacare,” campaign adviser David Axelrod said in an e-mail. They even pushed forward a Twitter hashtag “#whyiloveobamacare.”

Beyond the number of precious Twitter characters it requires, I’m not sure they should rush to accept the term so readily. “Can you imagine if the opposition called Social Security 'Roosevelt Security'? Or if Medicare was 'LBJ-Care'?” Axelrod also said. “Seriously, have these guys ever heard of the long view?” I’m not so sure those programs would escape the partisan rigmarole if they were explicitly tied to those Democratic presidents.

“I wish they weren’t called the Bush tax cuts,” former president George W Bush said yesterday. “If they’re called some other body’s tax cuts, they’re probably less likely to be raised.” It’s hard to dispute that logic. While polls generally show that the American public favors higher tax rates for the rich, it would have been difficult for Democrats to turn such a policy into a clarion call if they were just the Tax Relief and Reconciliation Acts of 2001 and 2003 rather than bills tied directly to an unpopular president.

The American public is simply too divided to accept the ideas of their opposition party. Conservatives are gleeful at the mere mention of Ronald Reagan, but Reaganomics sends a shiver down the spines of liberals. It’s not just their (rightful) objection to the veracity of trickle-down economics; the term inevitably recalls images of a president they disliked. Imagine an alternative reality where, after welfare reform passed in the 1990s, it had become the defining issue of Bill Clinton’s presidency such that the new system for distributing benefits would be called Clintonfare. Republicans love the welfare reform measure at the moment, but it’s hard to imagine an equal level of praise if they had to compliment Clinton’s presidency with each utterance.

I’m in the camp of people inclined to think that Obamacare will only become more popular over time as people directly feel the impact of the legislation. Yet it’s hard to imagine conservatives swinging around in 30 years to champion the name of Obama, even if the underlying policy is no longer controversial.

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