He built his career in large part by plastering his name on skyscrapers, hotels, casinos, books, wines and steaks, but there appears to be one place President Donald Trump does not want his favorite five-letter word — the Republican health care bill.
Before Obamacare, there was Romneycare. Back in the 1990s, there was Hillarycare. For a brief moment in the 2012 GOP primary, there was even Obamneycare (Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty quickly abandoned the phrase and, in August 2011, his campaign for the nomination). But the White House, for all its messaging woes and infighting, has settled on the fact that — for the time being — it’s steering clear of Trumpcare.
“Pretty much anything with the pejorative suffix on it — ‘care’ — is going to be viewed unfavorably by conservatives,” said former longtime Mitt Romney spokesman Ryan Williams, who was with the Massachusetts governor when he signed Romneycare. Romney had hoped to tout it in his 2008 presidential campaign, and he campaigned on a promise to repeal Obamacare in 2012.
“Anything with the word ‘care’ in it pretty much sounds bad to people these days,” Williams said.
Trump and his team seem perfectly attuned to that risk. But conservatives rallying against the plan have filled the branding void with what they hope to be their own derogatory titles like Ryancare, Obamacare 2.0 and Obamacare-lite.
When asked during the daily White House briefing on Tuesday whether the White House would embrace the House GOP plan as Trumpcare, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price demurred.
“I prefer to call it patient care,” Price said.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer was pressed on the same issue. “We’re less concerned with labels right now and more in terms of action and results,” he said.
On Wednesday morning, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway was also reluctant to commit to any particular nickname for the legislation.
“I’ll call it Trumpcare if you want to, but I didn’t hear President Trump say to any of us, ‘Hey I want my name on that,’” Conway told Fox News. “We’re happy it is the American Health Care Act. This is serious stuff. This isn’t about branding according to someone’s name.”
A White House spokesperson, however, was more emphatic. “It’s not Trumpcare,” the spokesperson said Wednesday. “We will be calling it by its official name,” the American Health Care Act.
Still, the White House is signaling that any reluctance to tiethe president’s name to the bill should not be interpreted as mixed feelings or a tepid endorsement. A senior White House official was adamant on Wednesday that the White House is behind the bill and that its failure would be a big failure for the president.
Democrats, though, have been eagerly embracing the term.
“What we have after the repeal is Trumpcare,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has said, before House Republicans revealed their plan. “Whatever is left after the dust settles is Trumpcare. Now, I know the president likes to play close attention to what he puts his name on.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have a track record of putting catchy labels on Democrats’ health care plans. The GOP came up with the term “Obamacare,” a label that quickly caught on with conservatives angry about what they called a government takeover of health care. They demagogued a series of state-based goody provisions in the law such as the Cornhusker Kickback, the Baystate Boondoggle and the Louisiana Purchase. They even attached Hillarycare to the Clinton administration’s health care effort in the 1990s.
But now that they have their own health care bill to name, they seem to be at a loss for a catchy title.
When asked this week how they felt about the name Trumpcare, several Republican lawmakers on the Hill were quick to duck the question.
“Oh I’m terrible at naming things,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.).
“I must say, I haven’t given it much thought,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said.
“We won’t be building one bridge, we’ll be building several because we don’t have in mind replacing Obamacare with a single big federal program,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said. “So if you’re going to name it, it ought to be the Tennessee Plan, or the Indiana Plan or the California Plan or the New York Plan. And I hope it doesn’t have a federal plan because I hope it’s not a federal, comprehensive health care plan.”
The plan’s formal name is the American Health Care Act, or AHCA, the pronunciation of which some have compared to a sneeze. Whatever qualms some may have with the acronym, the name is undoubtedly more modest than that slapped on a plan pushed by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas): “The World’s Greatest Health Care Plan Act of 2017.”
Trump, for his part, has at turns referred to the recently unveiled bill as “Our wonderful new Health Care Bill,” “the new and great health care program” and “the replacement plan.” If anyone knows the power of snappy nicknames, it’s Trump, who vanquished his campaign opponents with monikers such as Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco and Crooked Hillary.
And if he’s not careful, he may end up with a name of someone else’s choosing wrapped around his neck and his first major policy priority. Any sort of health care plan short of full-fledged demolition of Obamacare will likely end up with a label of its own — and that’s where the trouble arises.
“Health care is very, very difficult to message,” Williams, the former Romney spokesman, said. “This is not simply taking Obamacare and erasing it, which is what many conservatives want. … That’s simply unrealistic, it’s not going to happen.”
Democrats are acutely aware of the power of one loaded phrase to describe a law. Republicans have been disciplined about confronting Democrats with the cudgel of Obamacare up and down the ballot for years, and a pledge to repeal the law has become a surefire applause line for Republicans nationally. And an idea that was once popular with conservatives, the individual mandate, has become poisonous after its association with President Barack Obama.
Obama eventually came to embrace the term in a 2012 debate with Romney — “I like it,” Obama responded when Romney deployed the term and quickly assured the president he was using it with “all respect.”
One glaring danger is that the popularity of the figure whose name is linked to the legislation comes to color it in purely partisan terms.
George W. Bush would later remark that the bipartisan tax cuts he signed into law would have fared better had they not been popularly known as the “Bush tax cuts.” Obama and a divided Congress rolled back the cut for the highest earners in January 2013.
But in the end, an appetite among partisans and media alike for an easy shorthand may overpower any White House efforts.
On the far-right Breitbart News website Tuesday, a headline blared full repeal as the “Alternative to Ryan’s Obamacare 2.0.”
Annie Karni contributed to this report.
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