Dems Need Compelling Zingers on Health Care

Lack of zingy phrases leaves majority party on the defensive

It's a story as old as politics itself: when it comes to zippy catchphrases that capture the imaginations of the American public, the Republicans have Democrats beat. Always have, always will.

And every now and again some hapless Democrat will say, "You know, in order to win the argument on Topic X, we just need a different word to describe it," and they do some interviews every election cycle explaining how once again how they have been caught flat-footed in the rhetoric wars.

You'd think they'd learn, and yet Democrats are still consistently foiled by diabolical Republicans who come up with such wonderfully evocative phrases as "death tax" and "tax relief," and more recently, the famous "death panels" that will lower the cost of healthcare by arbitrarily deciding whose grandparent to murder in their sleep.

The solution? Polls and tests and poll testing and focus groups! Only these, and Science, can save the Democrats now. Except they aren't helping.

The effort began four years ago, when a center-left coalition of advocacy groups, union leaders and health-care experts teamed up to try to change the language of the health-care debate. The Herndon Alliance, named after the northern Virginia suburb where proponents first met, included the AARP, Service Employees International Union, the American Cancer Society and the liberal health-policy group Families USA, among others.

This Herndon Alliance cooked up all sorts of pro-healthcare reform talking points and phrases that seemed like a good idea several years ago, but that withered under the heat of "socialized medicine" and "death panels." So now Democrats are still wandering around mumbling about "quality affordable health care" while Republicans scream about literal bloody murder.

This healthcare debate will eventually end, and chances are it will end badly. But even when it's over, chances are the death panels will live on -- in the popular imagination, if not in reality -- just like Santa Claus.

Political linguist Sara K. Smith writes for NBC and Wonkette.

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