Ben Nelson on All Things Considered today

A friend called me earlier this evening after having listened to Ben Nelson on today’s edition of All Things Considered on NPR. He alerted me to this exchange:

ROBERT SIEGEL: When you spoke of the extension of coverage, do you mean by that that you support in principle the idea of mandates, and that individuals and employers be required to purchase health insurance?

BEN NELSON: Well I think it’s important that it be compulsory. I don’t particularly like the idea of calling it a mandate. We have compulsory auto liability coverage in America today in virtually every state.

SIEGEL: Is there any more than a semantic distinction between something that’s compulsory and something that’s mandated?

NELSON: Well let’s put it this way — we already have a word that outlines exactly what it is and why it exists. Why do we invent new words?

To me, understanding that this is essentially an insurance issue is important to get away from the idea that there’s too much government involvement in it. We already have that kind of government involvement in mandating compulsory auto insurance. Why don’t we talk about it the same way so that people understand, “Oh, it’s just about like that.” Then you get away from all the discussions and the arguments about whether it’s too much government or not.

On first listen, I had pretty much the same reaction my friend did — Ben Nelson was caught trying to do a little linguistic dance. And when he was called out on it, he kept doing it rather than just fessing up to it, ultimately just coming off as kind of shifty and dishonest. But when I re-listened to see if I wanted to type anything up for the blog, I realized what Nelson is trying to do. I don’t think he handled the exchange very well, but I actually agree with his point and think it’s a smart move. Typically if I write about Ben Nelson on here, I’m writing something negative, so I want to be sure to elaborate on this because I like what he’s doing.

One of the things I really dislike about Ben Nelson’s style is that he plays the centrist character by legitimizing Republican talking points. That’s entirely his choice to do it that way. He could make the negotiations he makes and attempt to strike the same deals he gets while adopting an intellectually honest centrist rhetorical stance. But I think he very rarely does that. A great example was the stimulus — ultimately, Democrats got their package, and thanks to Ben Nelson, it was even more money than the House passed. But Nelson justified his changes by calling some of the most effective and potentially stimulative spending “wasteful” with absolutely no evidence. So the country gets a much-needed stimulus, but in the process, he unnecessarily fueled a big fire of ignorant resentment. The House also gets maligned as the big spenders even though they passed a cheaper bill. There’s just all sorts of completely voluntary collateral damage when operating that way.

I’ve been seeing plenty of that with healthcare reform too. His dancing around a public option has been a great example. We get that he won’t vote for one. But rather than just saying it, he legitimizes all kinds of unfounded Republican talking points by repeating things like claiming it will drive private insurers out of business. He was all about trumpeting the CBO’s findings when they said the House bill would add to the deficit, yet he conveniently ignores the CBO when it says private insurers would still have millions more customers even with a public plan or when it says a public plan would save the government $150-200 billion over ten years. He also dismissed the concerns of an actual Nebraska small business owner as those of out-of-state special interests.

But when the rabid townhall meetings started, I noticed a different approach emerging. Nelson actually started refuting the Republican talking points. He didn’t get much cozier with what Democrats and progressives would hope he’d say, but there was a definite attempt to shut down lies about what’s being proposed. For the first time, I got the impression that he might actually like to see reform.

And now with this interview, Nelson isn’t just playing the centrist role or batting away dishonest attacks. He knows very well that the reforms in Congress — even the House bill that he’s described as being too far left — aren’t government takeovers. He knows the government intrusion is minimal, and far beneath anything that could be considered socialism or nationalization, so he’s employing a strategy to communicate that. Yes, as Siegel noted, “mandated insurance” and “compulsory insurance” are probably synonymous enough to be interchangeable. But Nelson sees the value in relating new health insurance mandates with existing auto insurance mandates, because fears of government intrusion can be genuinely alleviated when put into terms that people already understand.

The cool thing about this is that it’s not even a trick. Like I said above, I don’t think he did the best job of explaining himself, especially when you listen to the audio and can hear the delivery that I can’t convey in a transcript, so it comes off a little sneakier and more dishonest than it is. But it’s quite simple, and potentially quite effective for reform supporters trying to convey the message that these reforms aren’t a government takeover: We already have similar policies in the auto world; there, we call it compulsory. It might mean the same thing, but if we use the same terminology for a similar program, it might help demystify the proposal and reduce some genuine anxiety.

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