Them’s Frightin’ Words!

You have to hand this to the right wing: they know how to reduce complex issues down to a sound bite or two. It takes gifted people like Frank Luntz, the pollster and best propagandist they have these days, to turn, say, “anti-abortion” into “pro-life,” “estate tax” into “death tax,” “oil drilling” into “energy exploration.” I’m starting to catch another meme, and I hope you’ll pay attention to see if it spreads. The word is “Mediscare,” and if it didn’t come from Luntz (whose 2007 book was subtitled, “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear”), I’ll bet he wishes it had.

This word is emerging because during the recent congressional recess, several firebrands went back home to meet a “town-hall” crowd of pitchfork-wielding Frankenstein-movie villagers. Turns out that lots of seniors don‘t like Rep. Paul Ryan’s Ayn-Randish plan to eviscerate Medicare for their descendants. In other words, they fear objectivism; what’s gonna happen when my kid needs care and can’t afford it? You got yours; screw your kid! is diminishing as a vote-winning response. In New York’s 26th congressional district, around red-meat Buffalo, Jane Corwin was supposed to win a May 24 special election (called because of the resignation of her fellow Republican, Chris Lee, the family-values paragon who fired out that shirtless photo on Craigslist) in a walk, but now it’s a dead heat between her and Democrat Kathy Hochul. Some feel the gap was zapped by Ms. Corwin’s steadfast support for Rep. Ryan’s scheme, and Ms. Hochul’s fiery opposition. It would be such an embarrassment to lose this seat – and such an ominous sign for 2012 – that Pubs have sent out big-shot worthies including Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Speaker John Boehner, who said in the district on May 9 that Democrats were trying to “steal this election.” (That’s Republican for “win a seat that we thought was in our back pocket.”) So they came up with this word, “Mediscare.”

The implication is that Democrats are using scare tactics to make seniors uneasy about Pub intentions for Medicare. (Seniors are actually treated most kindly, at least at the beginning, by Rep. Ryan; it’s the rest of the country, except maybe for insurance companies, that should be uneasy.) Hmmm…isn’t that exactly what Pubs did two years ago to inflame teabaggers and other gullibles against the Affordable Health Care Act? Remember “death panels” – another great sound bite? For a generation, they’ve tainted any attempt to rein in the insurance/pharmaceutical machine by tagging it as “[person you don’t like]care.” First it was Hillarycare. In Massachusetts, Romneycare. Baggers, I’ll make you the same deal that Bill Maher offers: I’ll stop calling you “teabaggers” when you stop calling it “Obamacare.”

I’ve seen the word “Mediscare” at least twice recently on the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, the staging area for most Pub-speak trial balloons. (That’s where Sarah Palin found the cool-sounding-to-her phrase “blood libel.” Maybe she regrets using the term by now, but I really doubt it.) In order to make it work, they’ll have to repeat it hundreds of times on Drudge and Fox News; I don’t see those media regularly, so for all I know they’re doing it already. The “lamestream media” (zing!) don’t matter in the slightest. Otherwise the Pubs won’t own it; it hasn’t been that long ago that they themselves were wailing about those death panels and pulling the plug on granny. Nope, it has to be turned around and directed at Democrats. Then, next summer, Pubs can head out to “town halls” and say, “Those stats and facts the other guy’s throwing out? Heck, that’s just Mediscare!”

The Republicans have read their Orwell. (Luntz offers this, um, Orwellian interpretation of the author’s essay “Politics and the English Language”: “To be ‘Orwellian’ is to speak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening… and to do so without any pejorative whatsoever.”) “No Child Left Behind.” “The Clear Skies Act,” which weakened the “Clean Air Act.” The USA PATRIOT Act, a laboriously tortured acronym (“Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001” is its Sunday-go-to-meetin’ name). And their masterpiece, H.R. 2 in the current Congress, “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” A bit much, Mr. Speaker? Naw, we aren’t renaming the bill because of some little dustup in Tucson! Let’s face it: Machete don’t text, and Pubs don’t do nuance.

5/25/11: The Democrat, Kathy Hochul, won the seat in New York’s 26th, 47 percent to 43 percent, with a Tea Party candidate taking 9 percent. The turnout was large for a special election, and exit polling showed the race turned almost entirely on Medicare. Total spending was more than $6 million, with Republicans spending the most. The 26th is one of only four districts in New York which voted for John McCain in 2008; the seat has been in Republican hands for four decades (Jack Kemp once held it). You can’t derive a national trend out of a special election in a single congressional district, but this result is going to have Frank Luntz, and his Democratic counterparts, thinking hard about next year.


5 Responses to Them’s Frightin’ Words!

  1. Ann says:

    You give Frank Luntz way too much credit. “Pro-Life” and “Death Tax” have been around for ages, and “Mediscare” isn’t really new, either. “Oil Drilling” has to become “Energy Exploration” unless you want to talk about “Oil and Gas Drilling, Fracking, and Extraction, as well as Coal Mining” so I don’t think that’s so much language manipulation as it is an attempt to create a more accurate umbrella term. If you want to talk Orwellian language, you need to examine the replacement of the term “War on Terror” with “Overseas Contingency Operation.” (I guess Bin Laden’s death was a Contingent upon something?) “Death Tax” isn’t exactly accurate. It’s actually “A Second Tax on Previously Taxed Assets, Charged at the Time of Death Regardless of the Estate’s Liquid Assets.” (You don’t detect that I have an agenda, do you?)

    • Tom Dupree says:

      You forgot to add, “On the Value of the Estate Which Exceeds $5 Million, $10 Million for Couples.”

      I’ve only started hearing the term “Mediscare” in the last couple months, and I think I pretty much pay attention. Where have you heard it before?

      I also think it was unwise — and quite Orwellian — to declare unending war against a mental state.

      • Tom Dupree says:

        Ann pointed out privately [so as not to bore you all or perhaps publicly embarrass your humble obedient blogster] some references to the term “Mediscare” dating back to the Clinton administration. But she agrees with me that the term’s never been hotter than it is right now.

  2. Ann says:

    As one who has benefited from a lot of sophisticated estate planning (my father and my husband specialize in the field), I guess it would be silly for me to support the elimination of estate taxes (which previously were charged on estates of much lower values — $1 million, less at one point). I’ve also seen what the IRS has done to some of the evil rich whose family property was appraised really high, but when the bottom dropped out of the real estate market, the IRS sold the businesses and property for bargain basement prices in order to pay the taxes (on property which had already been thoroughly taxed, thank you very much) leaving the “heirs” with nothing — or less. Not much flexibility in the IRS. As for “Mediscare”, I want to say I heard it maybe back during the Hillarycare debate — certainly before this spring. But you see, you and I get our news from different sources… It’s also rather Orwellian that the poor in this country — for whom we’ve been fighting the War on Poverty for 40+ years — are more likely to be overweight than the more privileged groups. Only in America (or 1984).

    • Tom Dupree says:

      The reason might not involve Orwell at all: fat-crammed junk food is cheaper than healthy food. They’re certainly fatter down South, but then it’s hard to head into Whole Paycheck when you don’t have a paycheck. Yet if Mrs. Obama decides to make growing your own veggies and healthier childhood eating an issue, dopes like Sarah Palin accuse this big-government socialist of telling us we can’t have dessert! See, the game is: Obama anything…bad! That’s why Newt Gingrich is flip-flopping his way right back to Fox News.

      Here’s Dr. Palin on anti-obesity:

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