11/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Six Appeal: The Case for Health Reform in Six Easy Words

More competition. Lower costs. Guaranteed rights.

Those were the broad themes U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette discussed at her town hall in Denver last Saturday, explaining the benefits of health-care reform. Six words: More competition. Lower costs. Guaranteed rights.

Alas, like most Democrats, DeGette had way more than six words she wanted to emphasize.

You can't really blame her. It's impossible to capture the complexity of health-care reform in six words, and DeGette knows it better than most. As vice chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, she helped craft one of the three bills now pending before the House of Representatives. As Chief Deputy Whip for the majority, she's got to help deliver the votes when the final bill hits the floor in a few weeks.

She's spent nearly all year armpit-deep in the policy weeds. When DeGette mumbles a few words in her sleep, they're almost surely about insurance exchanges, employer mandates, lifetime caps, CBO scores, or percent-of-poverty thresholds.

But during waking hours -- especially in front of roughly 400 voters and three local news cameras packed into a stuffy high-school auditorium -- DeGette and all other Democrats have got to ditch the wonkspeak and strip down the vocabulary. Just six words, please: More competition. Lower costs. Guaranteed rights.

Those six easy-to-remember, sound-bite-friendly words summarize the benefits of reform. I wish the Democrats had been chanting them every day since the reform bill moved front and center back in May. I wish every sentence President Obama uttered on this issue began with one of those ideas.

More competition. Lower costs. Guaranteed rights.

Every aspect of reform fits neatly into one of those three categories. But the Democrats haven't emphasized the column headings nearly enough. They have let their fertile minds stray all over the policy map, without bringing the discussion home to the basics.

DeGette was a prime example on Saturday. She covered all the bases: No exclusions for preexisting conditions. No lifetime cap on coverage. Tax credits for households up to 400 percent of the poverty line. Tightly regulated insurance exchanges for the individual market. A public option. Deficit neutrality. She also riffed effortlessly on Medicare fraud, Ryan White's Law (which funds HIV/AIDS treatment for uninsured(able) patients), the Medicare Part D donut hole, and insurance for the disabled.

It was an impressive display; the woman knows her stuff. And that's good -- we want really smart people in charge, people who can master the complexities. But we also need leaders who can distill those complexities into simple concepts -- concepts like (repeat after me) more competition, lower costs, and guaranteed rights.

DeGette neglected to do that on Saturday. She'd go on a jaunt through the intricacies of provider compensation and lead us safely through the tangle, without announcing the destination at the end of the journey: Lower costs.

I shouldn't pick on the Congresswoman, who has worked as hard as anyone to craft a strong health-care bill. But Democrats can't afford to keep nattering on when they make the case in favor of the bill -- especially when the case against it consists of just a few easy-to-remember (and easy-to-shout) phrases: "Death panels!" "Government takeover!" "Socialism!"

Bumper-sticker crap. The voters love it. The media adore it.

I'm convinced the right's anti-reform canards wouldn't have made the same impact if reform's supporters had preemptively lodged their own six-word argument in the national mind. Because "more competition, lower costs, guaranteed rights" does more than summarize the substance of the reform policy. These six words also summarize the values in it -- and position those values as distinctly American. What capitalism-loving patriot could possibly argue against competition? How can Glenn Beck possibly rail against guaranteed rights?

He'd find a way, of course -- but if the public had already internalized the shorthand of competition, affordability, and rights, Beck et al might have convinced fewer people that Obamacare is a totalitarian conspiracy.

You'd think by now that the Democrats would be tired of winning on substance, only to get beat on values. But after 30 years of Reagan-Bush-Cheney, a policy can't merely be smart and sensible. Even more than that, it's got to be perceived as "American."

And yes, it's still possible to do both things at once.

Health-care reform is eminently sensible -- it will make us healthier and prevent us (individually and collectively) from going broke. But Democrats also have to argue that health-care reform will make us more free. It's pro-liberty. It will throw off the tyranny of monopolistic insurers and predatory drug companies. It will give individuals more choices. It will ease the crippling burden on the public ledger. It will (all together, now) introduce more competition, lower our costs, and guarantee our rights.

For a generation, the Democrats have studiously avoided battling the Republicans over values. Time to join the fight.