By Julian Pecquet - 06/08/11 10:00 AM EDT
A prominent Democrat is trying to change the public’s perception of “ObamaCare,” a term many in the party view as derogatory shorthand for the new healthcare reform law.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) says he’s had enough of Republicans using “ObamaCare” to disparage the healthcare overhaul. The second most senior lawmaker in the House has gone so far as to hand out buttons with the words “I [heart symbol] ObamaCare” as part of his campaign to rehabilitate a moniker he thinks Democrats should be proud of.
Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), regularly use “ObamaCare” when referring to the 2010 law.
Conyers says a friend in Lansing, Mich. thought of the button idea. It first attracted national attention when he wore one at a National Press Club event in March.
The former Judiciary Committee chairman said he has handed out buttons to at least three other House members whom he claims have embraced his approach on “ObamaCare.”
They include Reps. Hansen Clarke (Mich.), Keith Ellison (Minn.) and Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.).
None of the three members returned a request for comment.
However, the Obama administration is well-aware that many people use “ObamaCare.” Typing the phrase into Google brings up an ad for HealthCare.gov, a government website that explains various aspects of the new law.
Labeling in politics is an important aspect in the never-ending message wars between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans, for example, gained the upper hand by calling the “estate tax” the “death tax.” Democrats, meanwhile, torpedoed then-President George W. Bush’s Social Security reform plan by attacking its call for “private accounts.”
Chris Jennings, who served as a senior healthcare adviser to President Clinton, dealt with Republican efforts to “divide and conquer” when they renamed the doomed Health Security Act “HillaryCare” after Hillary Clinton, who led the reform effort.
The name stuck, Jennings said, to the displeasure of the first lady and her team.
“It can be damaging to personalize, because obviously health reform is much bigger than one person and it makes it sound like one person’s big vision and that no one else had any role in the production of the policy,” Jennings said.
Still, he said, Conyers might be on to something.
“If everyone is naming it ObamaCare anyway,” Jennings said, “not being defensive and actually embracing it can be a smart strategic move.
“Many of us have worked for decades toward that end, and we should be proud of it. And we should be running on it, not running away from it.”
Other Democrats detest the term.
Before she took over as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) tried to stop Republicans from using the term on the House floor, claiming it violates the chamber’s rules against disparaging remarks against the president.
Her argument didn’t go far, as the House prohibits personal attacks against the president — calling him a liar, for example, or accusing him of sexual misconduct — but allows vigorous debate on policy issues.
The Feb. 18 incident was sparked by a speech by Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) in which he argued in favor of an amendment cutting off funding for the law. If the law were defunded, Graves said, “government bureaucrats cannot lift so much as a finger, move a paper clip, send an email, if it has anything to do with ObamaCare.”
Later that day, Wasserman Schultz told ABC News that “the Republicans mean ‘ObamaCare’ as a disparaging term.”
“The law is called the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “I think it should be called the Affordable Care Act and Republicans shouldn’t be allowed to continue to make disparaging references to the president while expressing their concerns about the provisions of the law.”
Conyers said the congresswoman hasn’t talked to him about his effort, though he said he has worn the button on the Judiciary panel they both sit on.
Wasserman Schultz’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Conyers himself isn’t the law’s biggest fan — he’s been pushing his single-payer bill every Congress since 2003 — but he says Democrats should be proud of what they have accomplished.
The Michigan Democrat said he’s confident that perceptions of the law are already improving.
“It’s changing right now — we’re changing it,” he said.
“That’s exactly why we’re doing this: People tried to denigrate Obama, but this is a major accomplishment.”
It’s not clear where the term actually started, though one of the oldest references uncovered by an Internet search is sympathetic to the president.
“Obama’s national health insurance program, let’s call it ‘ObamaCare,’ provides Americans with affordable premiums, co-pays and deductibles,” Washington-based writer Wayne Madsen wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune on April 4, 2008, during the presidential campaign.
“I like the term,” Conyers said. “I wish I had invented it myself.”
A debate on “ObamaCare” emerged at a March Energy and Commerce hearing where Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) said he simply used the phrase to avoid having to use the law’s formal name, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).
“I don’t mean any offense, but PPACA doesn’t come out too good in my accent for the name of this law … it’s just easier for me to say,” Barbour said.
Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), who has his own thick drawl, didn’t sound convinced.
“I understand,” Green said. “It works well on Fox and with my Republican colleagues. But it’s really the Affordable Healthcare Act. We name things crazy, but it’s called health reform, that’s the easiest thing to say.”
But Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) made it clear Republicans are going to call the law whatever they want.
“With my accent,” he said, “I still call it ObamaCare, too.”
GOP officials are hoping voters are thinking about healthcare when they go to the polls next year.
A May Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 42 percent of respondents had a favorable impression of the law, while 44 percent said unfavorable. That’s virtually unchanged from a year ago (41 percent versus 44).