Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Political Language

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Political Language - The Limits of Careful Framing

The buzz this month, as more and more candidates declare they'd really like to be the next president - in spite of the total mess that needs massive clean-up, if that is even possible - is the new book, Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear - Hyperion (January 2, 2007). This is by Frank Luntz, known in some circles as "the conservative word doctor." For a bit he was considered a reputable pollster - CNN and MSNBC used to have him explain what people really thought as he interpreted the responses to the questions he posed.  But he was exposed.  He was a conservative, Republican operative rigging the questions with clever wording.  He was tossed off the air in that roll - people wised up. But in the years since then he's changed his ways, or at least clarified what it is he does.  He is now the "language advisor" to the right, letting them know what words work and what words don't.

As Katharine Mieszkowski puts it, he coaches conservatives to talk to Americans about "personalizing" Social Security instead of "privatizing" it. He urges them to promote "tax relief," not "tax cuts."  He "counsels Republicans to spread doubt about the scientific consensus around global warming." Recently he recommended that "drilling for oil" be referred to as "exploring for energy," which "goes down much more smoothly." She also point out that Luntz is "so reviled by environmentalists" that one group has named an award after him - for great achievements in doublespeak.

But the man is good. On the Amazon site though there's this from Publishers Weekly -

    After repeating his mantra - "it's not what you say, it's what people hear" - so often in this book, you'd think that Republican pollster Luntz would have taken his own advice to heart. Yet in spite of an opening anecdote that superficially attempts a balanced tone, the book as a whole truly reads more like a manual for right-wing positioning. Even in the sections where he is less partisan, Luntz's advice is not particularly insightful. For instance, his first chapter, on "Ten Rules of Effective Language," starts by instructing readers to use small words and short sentences in their communications. The least effective section in the book is the chapter on "Personal Language for Personal Scenarios," where Luntz advocates manipulative strategies for getting out of traffic tickets, boarding airplanes at the last minute and apologizing to one's wife with the "miracle elixir" of flowers. The most readable and redeeming feature is the two case studies, where Luntz demonstrates his skill as a communicator by identifying real-world communications successes and failures. Unfortunately, by the time nonpartisan readers reach these chapters, they will have already lost patience.

On the other hand they post this blurb from Frederick W. Smith, the Chairman and CEO of FedEx - "If you really want to capture the power of communication, 'Words that Work' can help you."

What to make of this?  Is the man a master propagandist, the very thing Orwell was so upset about? Or is he just clever with language, when the opposition isn't? He was the man who gave us Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract with America."  He just knows what people want to hear.  They can figure out it's nonsense later, and the hope is that would be much later, as in "too late" much later.

Mieszkowski, in the January 23 issue of Salon, gets him on the phone and interviews him.  The whole thing is worth a read, but some things stand out, like his thinking that the president's use of the word "surge" to describe the increase of troops in Iraq is a huge mistake -

    When people hear the word "surge," they think escalation, and when they think escalation, they think Vietnam. The president would have been better off focusing on "reassessment" and "realignment" - a reassessment of where we are and where we need to go, and a realignment of troops and resources.

    The surge is about a number. It's about numbers which also lead to casualties. A reassignment and realignment is about the overall strategy, tactics and action steps. It's broader, it's more precise, and it's more comprehensive.

She suggests that the problem with talking about a "surge" is that it focuses on process over outcome, and he's down with that -

    That's correct. But you can't focus on victory anymore, because the American people don't believe that victory is a possibility. But it's a legitimate point. You do still have to address the outcome - define it, explain it. What is your definition of "successful outcome"?

She then suggests that it can't be as simple as "victory." No one really thinks that will happen. They don't even know what it would look like, and the White House cannot explain what it would look like, so the whole concept just doesn't have any credibility.

    Correct. The most important rule of language in 2007: It must be believable.

Note he doesn't say anything has to be true. It only has to be believable.  And of course it doesn't have to be useful in any way either, only believable.  He's a political utilitarian. So he thinks we should work for a "credible outcome" in Iraq.  And this seems to be about more than just what you name things.

His idea is the White House is doing something right - you hammer home the idea that if we decide to give up and leave there's clearly going to be a guaranteed massive civil war, much worse than what we have now, and it will spread throughout the entire Middle East, and there will just be no stopping it. So, bad as the situation is now, it could still get worse. He really likes the whole idea of "the language of consequences."  Consequences are "real" to people.  They at least get that.

Winning or losing then doesn't matter much - victory is a moot point as people get with the idea that the consequences of stopping or changing exactly what we're doing are far worse than just keeping on keeping on. In short, you can "sell" that - people will come around. Perhaps the idea is that it is far better to keep banging your head against a brick wall again and again and again, however painful that is, if somehow you're convinced that if you stop your head will fall off.

Luntz doesn't address the obvious downside of working entirely with "the language of consequences" when all else fails - and Mieszkowski doesn't raise it.  But it is clear that when you get people in the habit of thinking about consequences, it is a bit hard to stop them from thinking of other things that same way, forbidden things.  We're in this Iraq mess as a consequence of what, exactly?  There's a reason the Democrats now control both the House and Senate.  The consequences of keeping the Republicans in power were just too scary to too many voters. The mess we're in is one clear consequence of giving them total power for six years, and that got fixed.

As for clever use of words though, Luntz is moderately, but not overly impressed that the Democrats are now using the word "escalation" - because it has an association with Vietnam -

    I think it's a very smart approach. But the way that some of them have articulated their opposition is so awful, like what Barbara Boxer said to Secretary Rice. That's the kind of overreaching, over-the-top hyperbole that undermines the Democratic effort to provide an alternative. In their anger, they have allowed their rhetoric to race beyond their solutions. It's a very dangerous place to be in politics.

He thinks the Republicans saying, "Well, if you have a better idea, we'd love to hear it," is much cleverer, and puts the opposition on the defensive - "What's your solution? And the answer is that they have none. They have no consensus. They've got no agreement, and they're triggering it by their use of extreme language."

It's the old, yeah, I dropped the carton of eggs on the sidewalk, and they're all broken and rotting is the sun, and you're complaining, but what's you're proposal for making them whole and back in the carton and back in the refrigerator, smarty pants? You don't have a plan, do you? Well, I've got more eggs, and I'll smash those too, and how will you fix that? You don't have an answer, do you?

Just stop smashing things. That's one answer. Yeah, but what's the alternative to smashing things, smarty pants?

Luntz revels in this form of political discourse.

On the other hand, he likes Barack Obama - " he doesn't sound like a political animal. He sounds like a human being. Barack Obama is the kind of person you'd like to have a beer with and sit in a classroom with. He rarely uses sounds bites. Everything he says sounds like something you and I might say in a conversation with each other."

Of course that's a "values neutral" assessment.  Luntz doesn't much care for substance.  In his trade substance is pretty much irrelevant.

You can see that is this exchange -

    Q - Is there any way Bush can talk about committing 21,000 more troops that would be more palatable to the American public? Or is that policy so unpopular that he can't build support for it, even by describing it differently?

    A - If it's just that policy on its own, it's too unpopular. It has to be part of a greater effort. But even in the questions you're asking me, you've made a decision, the media has made a decision, the public has made a decision: that if it's just about troops, it won't work. It has to be something broader. It has to be something comprehensive. That's why the concept of a reassessment and a realignment was so important for him.

Change the words to broaden the context - making sending in twenty-one thousand more guys just a minor part of some bigger and far better thing - and things will be all better. Parents, then, will gladly send their children off to Iraq - if you do the vision thing, however vague.

But then, even Luntz backs away from that nonsense - "Look, words only work so far. Even the best words will not sell an unpopular policy, and the danger is that people tend to raise the power of words beyond what they can actually deliver."

You just can't be too cute and clever, and only cute and clever -

    It's a war situation. In war situations, the goal is not to create the best sound bite, it's to provide the best rationale. It's to educate and explain. That's the difference between pulling someone to support the war versus pushing them. The Bush administration and so many of the supporters of the war are still using push rhetoric, which is very political and very divisive.

    It's pushing people to support something without giving them the necessary tools to do so, without giving them the defense, the evidence, the education. The difference between push and pull is that push asserts and then explains. Pull explains and then asserts.

Ah, you're really supposed to explain why we should support this war, in just the way it has been waged, before you tell us we have to support it or we're cowards, traitors or girly-men.  Someone didn't get that Luntz memo.

And those midterm election where the Republicans lost congress were full of similar linguistic mistakes, or "framing" mistakes -

    Earmarks became a public issue and they were silent on it. The bridge to nowhere was a complete disaster for the GOP. Not articulating the sense of accountability with Mark Foley and Duke Cunningham and [Bob] Ney. I think that the language that was tied to the policies of 1994 represented politics at its best, and language tied to the politics of 2006 represented politics at its worst.

    What was the Republican message for 2006? I've asked congressmen, senators. I even asked the people responsible for creating the message for 2006. What was the message for the Republican Party in 2006? Not a single person can give me an answer. None of them. No one at the Republican National Committee, no Republican senator, no Republican House member, no operative, none of the Democrats, can answer it either. Nobody knows. That's the failure. So when you say to me, "Give me an example," I can't. There's no message to criticize because there was no message. It was nothing.

    The Democrats had it easy. Gingrich created it for them. Gingrich is a good wordsmith. He created the best message possible: "Had enough?" Those two words said it all. The Democrats offered nothing except an alternative to the Republicans, and in 2006 "nothing" was better than the GOP.

At least the Republicans could have made everything "about the children" - Luntz say that always works with voters -

    Hillary Clinton proved that with "It takes a village." She was the creator of that. She started the children's political movement; it wasn't Marian Wright Edelman. It was Hillary Clinton who politicized children, and she found a lever that works, and she's capitalized on it, but now other politicians have used it.

Yep, he's envious she got there first.

But there's always global warming policy - the president's change of heart - even if the Republicans spent years spreading doubt that there was any consensus at all in the scientific community about global warming.  Will that work to shift things?

Maybe -

    He has to be straightforward. Those on the left will condemn him for waiting so long, and those on the right will criticize him for selling out, and the answer is to stand up for your conviction and his beliefs. If his opinion has changed, say so.

    The issue to me is not whether there is global warming or climate change; the issue is the best policy to addressing it. That's where the debate should have been. Just as we should not be arguing about whether Social Security is in crisis. We should be arguing how to make retirement security more real and more effective. When you fight over process or definitions, you always lose. And you end up dividing the people you're trying to reach. We should be focused on the results.

But then, going into the address - Bush at 28% in CBS poll -

    The president's nationally televised message to Congress may not even reach many of those whose minds he would like to change. Less than half the public says it's very likely to watch the speech - and that answer comes more from those who already support him.

    There's still more troubling news for the president: By a more than 2-to-1 margin, Americans think Mr. Bush does not share their priorities. Just 28 percent think he does, while 69 percent think he does not.

And this - Bush Poll Ratings Fall To Nixon Levels -

    President George W. Bush's approval ratings are now the lowest for any president the day before a State of the Union speech since Richard Nixon in 1974, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

    Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said they disapprove of how Bush is handling his job as president while 33 percent approve. The rating matches Bush's career low in a May 2006 poll.

    Seventy-one percent of Americans said the country is on the wrong track, up from 46 percent in an April 2003 poll, the month after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Specifically - Bush, at low point in polls, will push domestic agenda -

    In a Gallup poll conducted in August 1974, just before his resignation, Richard M. Nixon had a 24 percent approval rating.

Luntz, with all his advice, cannot fix this. No one is prepared to believe a word of it, any word of it. If it's true that it's not what you say, but rather, what people hear, what can you do if they don't even listen now?

This item posted - in its final version - January 28, 2007

[Political Language]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik