Conservative word doctor Frank Luntz explains what Bush should say about the war, why Nancy Pelosi should keep quiet, and what the GOP can learn from Barack Obama.
Frank Luntz is a Republican word doctor who 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’s counseled 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. Luntz is so reviled by environmentalists that one group has named an award after him for great achievements in doublespeak.
In his new book, “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” Luntz promotes and analyzes his own contributions to the political lexicon — including Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract With America” — dissecting why some phrases resonate and others flop. In a phone interview with Salon, Luntz discussed his dissatisfaction with the way the White House talks about the war in Iraq, his impressions of Barack Obama, and his beef with the progressive netroots.
What do you think of the president’s use of the word “surge” to describe the increase of troops in Iraq?
It’s 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.
Isn’t part of the problem with talking about a “surge” is that it focuses on process over outcome?
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”?
It can’t be as simple as “victory,” because it doesn’t have any credibility.
Correct. The most important rule of language in 2007: It must be believable.
So what would be a credible outcome, if not victory?
Well, the outcome, if we decide to give up and leave, is the guarantee of massive civil war, far beyond what we have today, and one that could easily spread throughout the entire Middle East. So, bad as the situation is now, it could still get worse.
So the White House could talk about how it could get worse if we don’t do X, Y and Z.
That they have done. In a single word, it’s the language of consequences. Consequences themselves are neutral, it could be good or bad, but consequences are real, particularly in times of war.
So do you think that Democrats are being clever by using the word “escalation” because it has an association with Vietnam?
Absolutely. 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.
Because then you have the Republicans saying, “Well, if you have a better idea, we’d love to hear it”?
Right. Exactly. 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. For Barack Obama, who up to this point had run a perfect campaign, to compare the U.S. effort to babysitting, completely undercuts the seriousness of a war that has already taken thousands and thousands of lives. That type of language is beneath him, and it will also undermine him personally. People like him because he doesn’t try to be cute.
But you generally think he’s good with language?
Yes, I do. Because 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. That’s why his babysitting comment struck me so horribly. It was the first time I’ve heard him slip into political speak.
It sounded like somebody else had crafted it for him?
It sounded like they had been batting it around: Let’s get a good sentence into as many news broadcasts as we can.
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?
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.
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.
A number of conservative commentators are now using the same language they used to attack John Kerry to attack the Democrats’ criticism of the Iraq war, saying, “They were for the war and now they’re against it.” Do you think that still resonates?
I don’t think so, because you’re trying to be too cute. I think that the best way to support the war is to do so unabashedly and intellectually, without cute words and phrases.
So, that smacks of a “gotcha” language, and it’s beneath the subject matter?
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.
So, basically, they have to explain why you should support this war before they tell you to do so.
They’ve got the Ricky Ricardo challenge: “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do.”
What do you make of Dick Cheney’s recent statement that you can’t “run a war by committee”? Does that actually help win support to say that?
It doesn’t help to win support, but it’s also not a negative. Critical as I am of the Republicans, the Democrats have done a miserable job. It’s almost like the Israeli Knesset. For every Democrat in the Senate, they’ve got a different war policy. There’s no consensus. There’s no articulation of an alternative. It’s all jumbled together, and you get the feeling, and this is the tragedy, you get the feeling that they’re as interested in the political gain as they are in the military component. I’m unhappy with everybody.
What linguistic mistakes do you think the Republicans made in the 2006 election that helped cost them control of the House and Senate?
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.
And what was some of that language?
You tell me. 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.
What do you think the Democrats did right in the 2006 election?
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.
So you think the Democrats didn’t really do anything right linguistically, it’s just that they didn’t do anything wrong?
They did nothing wrong because the Republicans did nothing.
What do you think of the Democrats’ phrase “first 100 hours”?
It’s a governing tool as much as a communications device, and it works because it creates a sense of immediacy and urgency. One of the smartest things with the GOP [which promised to enact the Contract With America in the first 100 days of the 104th Congress] is that in 100 days they knew how much they had to get done. They busted their ass, but they got it done. And now the Democrats did 100 hours. Now, of course, Americans think that means the first four days. They don’t realize it means two hours here, three hours there, but that’s what makes it a good governing device. And, for the most part, the Democrats have stayed on message effectively. Individual members have strayed from time to time.
You write in your book that casting a policy “about the children” — however saccharine that might sound — actually does resonate 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.
In that context, I wonder what you thought of Nancy Pelosi making her debut as the first woman speaker with all her grandchildren flanking her?
To political people it was tacky, but it did reinforce the message that she was different, and in this anti-Washington, anti-political environment, being different is a good thing. It will make insiders gag, but the average American will approve it.
I always thought she was the worst communicator the Democrats had, but she’s held her tongue over the past couple months, and that’s been very helpful to them in furthering their advantage over the Republicans on the key issues and key attributes.
The Democrats are in better shape now than they were on Election Day, and her keeping quiet is one of the reasons why. For instance, her press secretary came out and made a comment: We’re going to put Bush’s plan through “harsh scrutiny.” The public isn’t looking for harsh scrutiny, they’re looking for accountability. And using the word “harsh” is exactly what they don’t want about politics. They’d be better off to let Rahm Emanuel do all the talking on the House side, and let Barack Obama do the talking on the Senate side.
So the “harsh scrutiny” line is a misstep?
It’s a misstep, and it’s rare. It’s interesting: If you put the bloggers, and I’ve become really hostile to this, if you take the people who blog and who write responses on Huffington Post and Daily Kos and MoveOn, and you put them in charge, they’d take the Democratic Party right down to 33 percent. They’re angry that the Democrats haven’t slashed and burned. But it’s the fact that they haven’t slashed and burned that has made them so successful. The Democratic Party has moved to the mainstream, and the mainstream embraced them in 2006. If the bloggers were put in control, they’d be exactly where Ned Lamont is today: out of work.
You know, every time George Lakoff puts out a new book, I buy it. I spend half my time watching the Democrats on the floor of Congress and reading Democratic blogs — at least half my time, perhaps more. Those on the left would do a lot better, instead of criticizing and condemning their political opponents, to understand them and to listen to them. It would make them more effective in their opposition.
Bush plans to outline a global warming policy in his State of the Union address this week. The GOP spent years spreading doubt that there was consensus in the scientific community about global warming, but in recent years Bush has changed his position. So, considering the doubt that he’s helped spread, how do you think that he should talk about it to get Americans engaged in the issue?
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 there has to be agreement that there is a problem in order to get anybody to care about it, right?
Well, we’ll see what he says.