Debate Q&A on ‘ObamaCare’

November 10, 2011

Question: How many times was the word “Obamacare” said during the debate last night?

Answer: Based on this transcript, it was said 11 times.

Question: Who said it?

Answer: Bachmann said it four times. Romney said it three times. Perry and Santorum said it once each. Gingrich, Huntsman, Paul, and Cain never said it.

Question: But that only adds to 9? I thought the answer was 11?

Answer: That’s because moderator Maria Bartiromo said it twice. First, when introducing the topic of what would replace the ACA, she said:

“You have all said that — that you will repeal the president’s health care legislation. We will get into that, because we want to know, then what? What is the plan once you repeal Obamacare?”

Later, she reintroduced the issue:

You have all said that you will repeal President Obama’s health care legislation. Down the line, 30 seconds, if you repeal Obamacare, what’s the answer?

Question: What do you make of this?

Answer: I didn’t like it, for two reasons. First, I think it’s a pejorative term for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or at least a loaded one, and I don’t think debate moderators should be using politically loaded terms when they ask questions. My hunch is that the vast majority of people who use the term are negatively describing the law, and my guess is that a lot of liberals and supporters of the bill find ‘Obamacare’ to be partisan slang.

Now, it may be the case that ‘ObamaCare’ has just simply entered the lexicon as popular slang. I still don’t think journalists should be using it. It assumes a certain political orientation. I’m pretty skeptical about the health care plan — I don’t think it’s going to accomplish the bulk of what it sets out to do — but I would still never refer to it as ‘Obamacare’ if I was asking politicians questions.

Second, I don’t like the president-centric aspect of the name. Maybe I’m too much of a Whig, but President Obama didn’t pass the law, Congress did. Hell, President Obama didn’t even propose the bill; as we all know so well, it came straight through the committee system without the White House ever offering up their own public version of health care reform in legislative language.

I don’t mean to take this too far. There’s obviously a line to be drawn. For example, I don’t think ‘Bush tax cuts’ is out of bounds; that’s what everyone calls them, both opponents and supporters. But to me, ‘Obamacare’ is more like saying ‘death tax’ than it is like saying ‘Bush tax cuts.’ If moderators want to say ‘the President’s health care legislation’ as Maria did, I’m ok with it (although I would still think it less than perfect given my second objection). But I think ‘Obamacare’ crosses a line.

Some people might say who really cares? Maybe that’s a fair point. But I think language matters significantly in politics, and the words we choose to represent different ideas and policies have consequences. Like I said, I’m skeptical of the law and think it’s not ultimately going to be the final national health care policy, even if it’s not repealed. So it’s not like my blood is boiling over this. But if I were a liberal Democrat, I’d be at least a little ticked off about it.

Question: Is Maria the first moderator to use the term in a debate?

Answer: Actually, no. I went back and checked the transcripts. The word ‘Obamacare’ had been said 124 times by candidates in the eight debates going into last night. It had been said 5 times by moderators, but 4 of those instances were somewhat special circumstances.

Here are the number of times a candidate said ‘ObamaCare’ and the number of times a moderator said “ObamaCare” in each of the debates:

  • FOX NEWS / SC Republican Party Debate (5/5, transcript here): 0 candidates /0 moderator
  • CNN / NH Union Leader (6/13. transcript here): 24/0
  • FOX NEWS /Iowa GOP Debate (8/11, transcript here): 14 / 0
  • NBC NEWS / Politico Debate (9/7, transcript here): 15 / 0
  • CNN / Tea Party Express Debate (9/12, transcript here): 16 / 0
  • FOX NEWS / FL GOP Debate (9/22, transcript here): 18/2 (both in reference to a word cloud graphic)
  • BLOOMBERG / WaPo Debate (10/11, transcript here): 17/2 (both clarifying what a candidate meant)
  • CNN/Western Republican Debate (10/18, transcript here): 18/1 (Anderson Cooper question)
Both moderator uses on 9/22 were in reference to a word cloud graphic built from public data, so they don’t really count. Both references on 10/11 were Karen Tumulty seemingly trying to clarify what Gingrich was talking about.
That leaves Anderson Cooper on 10/18 as the only previous unambiguous use of ‘Obamacare’ by a moderator. He said:
“Speaker Gingrich, you’ve also been very critical of Mitt Romney’s plan, not only on “Obamacare” but his plan to lower the capital gains tax only on those earning under $200,000.”

Since I’m chastising Maria here, it’s only fair that I chastise Anderson as well. Bad job, Mr. Cooper.

Update: Go read Jon Bernstein’s thoughts on this, in which he argues quite rightly that Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is not a neutral term, but a propaganda titling. Good point! He recommends using ACA, which I 100% agree with, and usually use myself. I don’t fully agree, however, that ‘ObamaCare’ is the equivalent of ‘Dodd/Frank’ or ‘Pell Grants’ or ‘Bush Tax Cuts.’ All of those terms are used by both supporters and opponents of the laws. Two years ago, Democrats on the Hill were bristling at the ‘ObamaCare’ terminology; if they now accept it, that just tells me that they’ve lost part of the rhetorical battle over the law. But I don’t think liberals have generally accepted the term, and I don’t think they should have to accept it from the press.

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