Life as an Extreme Sport

In eight words, three that will fail

Prior to signing books yesterday, Senator Schumer spoke for a bit about the book Positively American and his motivation for writing it. As the primary architect of the 2006 Democratic takeover, he’s already looking ahead to 2008, and what Democrats can do to win the presidency. He said that there were eight words that elected G.W. Bush: war in iraq, lower taxes, no gay marriage. These eight words were political phrases tied to deep moral values that motivated a core constituency to get out and vote. More importantly, they unified people around those core moral values: protecting the country, smaller government, and the sanctity of marriage.

Schumer belives that Democrats need to find their own eight words for the 2008 electionAnd if you have any, definitely go to the website and suggest them – he is presenting it as a chance for the common person to get involved in the political process.; that this is where Gore and Kerry failed. They didn’t have easily compacted political phrases that tied directly to deep moral values. These eight words need to be positive phrases (“no war in Iraq” wouldn’t work), and cannot be vague. The example he gave, one that he felt was positive and tied to a deep moral value, was “universal health care”.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with this: it presumes a comprehensive moral doctrine that we most assuredly do not have. For many people, health care access is not a right, it is a reward and a privilege of doing well (and not something to reward people who, in their eyes, don’t do the work necessary to receive it). For others, there is not so much a reward principle tied to health care, but the simple and very common belief that individuals are responsible for their own health.

When you hold either of these views, which are closely related although motivated by different reasons, universal health care is not linking down to a shared moral view on health care access. It is instead alienating a large segment of the population by in fact doing exactly what they morally oppose.

While the idea of overhauling our health care system is certainly a growing, vocal concer, until we separate the notion of personal responsibility from access to health care, we will not be able to achieve universal health care. And in fact, this is exactly why universal health care for children is both okay and strongly supported – precisely because we simultaneously believe that children do not have personal responsibility (autonomy) and that children should be cared for to a certain standard. Once these children reach a certain age, however, we presume they achieve autonomy, and with that the personal responsibility to care for themselves.

Until we separate the ideas of responsibility from health care access, we will not have universal health care coverage. A lack of health care must no longer be viewed as a stigma, or seen as a moral judgment highlighting personal failure to succeed and take care of one’s self. When we accomplish this, then we can begin to talk about unifying political phrases grounded in moral doctrine. But until then, the only thing the three words “universal health care” will do is drive away those who see it as a code phrase for turning the country into a welfare state.


  1. I really do find myself waffling about the idea of (to continue using Rawls) a comprehensive moral doctrine that everyone will agree on. If I’m reading Jim Wallis, I’m inclined to think it’s likely, but if I’m reading Rawls himself, I’m highly skeptical.

    Useful, eh?

    I do see Schumer’s point, though – simple, focused messages that aren’t going to alienate people. The words used are important, and to say “equal rights for all” conveys a much different meaning than “pro-gay marriage”, even though they’re the same thing.

    I also see his point that, in the face of Bush’s eight words, Kerry seemed very unfocused. I think that it’s going to be a challenge, though, to find a focus for the Democrats that doesn’t also focus the Republicans.

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