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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s HCR Win Rooted in Emotional Appeal

This item by J.P. Green was first published on April 2, 2010.
I’ve been a little wary of Drew Westen’s argument that the failures of Democrats in politics derive from over-reliance on reason-based appeals, while the Republicans win their victories by connecting with voters’ emotions. I felt he may have over-stated his case, since I know lots of people who make elegant rational arguments for or against politicians based on positions on the issues.
But Westen makes a very strong case for the persuasive power of emotion over reason in politics in his CNN commentary “Why Obama won the health care battle.” This time, Westen, author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” applies his theory to explain the course of the HCR struggle, and it fits impressively.

Politicians tend to think about how the minds and brains of voters work in one of two ways.
The first is to assume that voters come to decisions on issues like health care reform by carefully examining the data and the arguments and then calculating whether one plan or another better fits their rational self-interest. In this view, a campaign is a debate on the issues.
When you hear (or heard) Democratic strategists dismiss polls showing that the majority of Americans opposed the president’s health care plan but support its component parts, this is the model of the mind of the voter they are assuming.
That’s why Democrats tend to lose ground even on issues with strong popular support, like health care reform, which was extremely popular during the 2008 election but steadily lost backing over the course of the first year of the Obama administration until regaining some momentum over the past few weeks.

Westen argues that HCR got serious traction when President Obama and the Democrats embraced the alternative view of “voters is as people who have to be sold on a policy or candidate. They are consumers, not debaters, and they’ll walk out of a store that doesn’t have attentive salespeople.” The winning strategy, according to Westen:

How do you sell reform? You tell a consistent story about what’s wrong with the system, who broke it and how we can fix it. You evoke not only people’s concerns about their interests but their values: fairness, the ability to choose what’s best for themselves and their family, security.
You try to get people as passionate as you are, concerned about the security of their care, angry at insurance companies that have been calling all the shots and hopeful that you know what to do about it. And you choose your words carefully, because words carry emotional connotations, and people may not know exactly what’s in a bill, but they have a general sense of whether they like it.
This is how Republicans tend to think about politics. And it’s how they managed to leave Americans with a bitter taste in their mouths about efforts to reform a health care system that had left virtually all of us one pre-existing condition — or one cancer requiring treatment that exceeded our annual or lifetime “cap” — away from medical bankruptcy, no matter how good we thought our insurance was.

For too long, argues Westen, Dems were over-using emotionally-constipated phrases such as “universal health care” and “health insurance reform” that “don’t exactly make your spine tingle.” Meanwhile Republicans were tapping the power of emotional appeals, like calling HCR “Obamacare” and “a government takeover” of our health care system that would “put a bureaucrat between you and your doctor.” Further,

For a year, while the Republicans were telling a great story about “death panels” and the president’s “socialist” agenda (though the president wouldn’t even support the “socialist” option of giving Americans the option of buying into Medicare if they preferred it over private insurance), the White House wasn’t offering a coherent story.
Precisely what problem the plan was intended to fix seemed to shift from week to week (Was it cost? Or the 46 million people without insurance? Or middle-class people losing their coverage?). And as for the plot, we didn’t know until a few weeks ago what the president’s plan even was.
Making matters worse, Obama seemed to lack passion about his signature issue. Everything seemed negotiable, as if what mattered was that the bill passed, not what was in it. And the White House used every word in the book you wouldn’t use if you wanted to “sell” reform.
Instead of emphasizing that people who work for a living ought to be able to take their kids to the doctor when they’re sick — a value statement that makes clear who the bill was designed to help (people who work for a living and still can’t get or afford decent health care, or could lose their insurance if they lost or changed jobs or started a small business) — the White House talked about “bending the cost curve,” another linguistic heart-stopper.

But the tide changed, Westen says, when President Obama began “telling a compelling story”:

….This story actually included the villains: Health insurance companies denying life-saving care to people for profits. In speeches journalists described as his most “passionate” since becoming president, he told the story of a woman who lost her life after she lost her health insurance and of a little boy who lost his mother because she couldn’t pay for her illness. He seized on an insurance rate hike of nearly 40 percent in California to mobilize populist anger.
And for the first time, the president decided to answer the attacks of his opponents, not just with well-reasoned arguments (which he did) but with attitude. When John McCain started posturing at the president’s “bipartisan” summit, the president reminded him that the election was over and who had won. When House Minority Leader John Boehner started rattling off talking points, the president responded with the verbal equivalent of eye rolling and asked whether there was someone who actually wanted to get something done…The president looked strong, resolute and passionate.

Looking ahead, Westen sees a critical choice for the white house:

…He can return to the “why can’t we all just get along?” unilateral bipartisanship that tied him up in knots in his first year, as if Republicans are just Democrats in need of rational arguments.

Or, better,

…Obama can damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead, dare the Republicans to vote no on every effort to fix every problem the country faces and pursue the pragmatic (sometimes partisan, sometimes nonpartisan) leadership the American people want.

And if the President can bring some of the passion he displays so well in his speeches into his press conferences, interviews and televised appeals, he can brighten prospects for the mid-terms, his re-election and the future of his party.

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