I had a chance to talk with Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) at Crosscut's weekly editorial brown bag lunch. Given that Chopp is a politician with strong populist sensibilities (progressive populism) and that he's a former community organizer, and that he has in his charge a number of Democratic legislators from swing districts (Chopp will not call them Blue Dogs), I wondered what he thought of President Obama's problems selling health care reform this summer, and if he had any advice.
Chopp praised Obama and compared him to Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose name was spoken reverently around Chopp's parents' dinner table. Chopp's dad, an electrician in Bremerton, revered FDR for, among other things, electrifying the nation. And Chopp himself says he counts himself lucky that Obama, the new FDR, came along in his lifetime. The speaker says he's never been more inspired in 30 years in politics. That said, he emphasized that he's discovered the importance of finding simple messages and catchy ways to describe progressive legislation. Tim Eyman is good at this for his mostly conservative initiatives, but liberals can do it too.
What sounds better, Chopp asked, SCHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program), or Apple Health for Kids? Apple Health, of course, is a branding of the program to get health care coverage for uninsured state children. Apples are very Washington, very healthy (an apple a day...), and they also evoke schools (apples for the teacher), helping to tie funding kid's health coverage to education. Healthy kids learn more. Apple Health, therefore, isn't a welfare program, it's an education program. And what's Washington's number one constitutional requirement: education.
What sounds better, Chopp asked, ECAP (Early Childhood and Parenting) or Head Start? Acronyms are bad, descriptions of positive results good. Another example of branding that Chopp is engaged in: Recasting "Higher Education" as an "Opportunity Pathway." One sounds elitist, the other is for everyone. Chopp also said that building in ways of informing the public about their government benefits was very important to a program's success. For example, he likes requiring that students at state colleges and universities see not only their tuition payment and student loan amount, but the educational subsidy the state pays to make that education possible.
If it all sounds a little Mad Men, maybe it is, but as you can see from Obama's health care difficulties, not having a simple message and a catchy way to package it can have serious consequences — especially when the opposition is so good at branding the negatives ("death panels," "socialized medicine.") Medicare is a great brand that even people who don't like government-run health care won't give up. What national health care reform needs is something akin to Apple Health. Says Chopp, "it's good policy, good politics, it's mom and apple pie." Literally.