From the middle of 2009 onward, those opposed to President Obama’s attempted overhaul of American medicine have enjoyed a distinct, if underappreciated, rhetorical advantage. Taking a page out of the playbook that led to the defeat of Hillarycare in 1994, advocates of limited government and liberty quickly coined the president’s centerpiece initiative “Obamacare.” As a result, the battle was initially waged between opposition to Obamacare and support for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — a name so cumbersome and unappealing that even the Democrats often shied away from using it. Rhetorically, it was hardly a fair fight.
In an apparent burst of sympathy for the Democrats and their liberal allies, however, an increasing number of Republican politicians and conservative commentators are slowly but surely abandoning the term “Obamacare” in favor of “the Affordable Care Act,” or “the ACA.” Perhaps the thinking is that, while many if not most Americans hate the sound of Obamacare, they will hate the sound of “the Affordable Care Act” all the more.
In truth, of course, not even the daftest politician or commentator would come to this conclusion. Rather, those who use “Affordable Care Act” — or “ACA” — instead of “Obamacare” likely either (A) don’t consciously realize they’re doing so or haven’t really thought through the political implications of their choice, (B) have made peace with the federal overhaul and are no longer trying to rally public support against it, or (C) have decided that “Obamacare” isn’t sufficiently polite; that saving the country from an unprecedented consolidation of power at the expense of Americans’ liberty needs to take a backseat to political correctness; and that calling it “the Affordable Care Act” will likely improve their standing at D.C. cocktail parties.
Meanwhile, the American people vehemently oppose Obamacare and have done so since the months leading up to its passage, when even those in Massachusetts sought to thwart Obama’s aims by sending Scott Brown to Washington to replace the late Ted Kennedy. In the aftermath of the Democrats’ defiant refusal to listen to public sentiment, voters rewarded the GOP with a historic gain of 63 House seats and clear control of that chamber. Moreover, if a credible Republican candidate had entered the presidential race with the goal of making Obamacare — and a compelling GOP alternative — the focus of the campaign, Obama would likely now be living in Hyde Park rather than across from Lafayette Square (albeit still at public expense). Yet despite the actual Republican nominee’s refusal to emphasize the centerpiece of Obama’s presidency, recent Kaiser polling indicates that Obama’s namesake is now even less popular than when the Democrats rammed it into law three years ago.
This is a very strange time, in other words, to make peace with Obamacare or to stop calling it by its widely known — and not particularly flattering — name. “Obamacare” connotes something vaguely against the natural order of things. It suggests an untoward intrusion on the medical profession by the federal government. And it implies an excess of ambition on the part of the man most associated with the endeavor — ambition directed toward centralizing power in the interest of “making history.” Moreover, it also suggests something that lacks permanence, something whose status is tenuous rather than entrenched — an important connotation for those looking to repeal it.
On the other hand, “the Affordable Care Act” suggests something that will lead to affordable care. (Do Republicans really think Obamacare will produce this result?) In other words, it’s a gross misnomer. Moreover, “the Affordable Care Act” isn’t even the overhaul’s real name. Rather, it’s the cutesy shorthand version of that name — the version that the left understandably prefers.
There may be the occasional moment, one must grant, when using “Obamacare” might not be entirely appropriate. But if a given occasion calls for particular delicacy of language, then Republicans should at least call the 2,700-page monstrosity by its full, unwieldy, bureaucratic-sounding name — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — or its similarly clunky 5-letter acronym. Such instances, however, should be rather few and far between. Indeed, even Obama uses the term “Obamacare”; he used it twice during a recent press conference. So why are Republicans increasingly reticent about using it themselves?
Perhaps Republicans have grown so accustomed to holding the short end of the rhetorical stick that it seems almost unsporting to them to have the clear rhetorical advantage. Maybe they’ve gotten so used to being painted as being “against abortion rights” (instead of being “against abortion” or “for protecting human life”), against “undocumented immigrants” (instead of being “against illegal immigration”), and the like, that they’re not sure what to do when the biggest issue of the day is being fought on their own rhetorical turf.
But even the most tone-deaf Republican must realize that the list of great rhetorical slogans — those that have led to profound political victories and have captured the essence of their causes — will surely never include the phrase, “Repeal the Affordable Care Act!”
Jeffrey H. Anderson is executive director of the newly formed 2017 Project, which is working to advance a conservative reform agenda.